George Herbert Walker Bush

The loss of a good leader is lamented for many reasons. Never though do I recall a leader who, after he died, was extolled less for what he did, and more for who he was.

George H. W. Bush was a man of many extraordinary accomplishments – just one of which was serving as president of the United States. But in the already exhaustive  coverage of his life and legacy what was repeatedly emphasized were not his remarkable political achievements but his extraordinary personal attributes.

In a book I wrote years ago titled Reinventing Leadership I composed a list of those characteristics that were most highly prized in both the literature on leadership in business and the literature on leadership in government.

The list of traits included:

  • Empathy and insight
  • Experience and expertise
  • Well-adjusted and interpersonally skilled
  • High level of activity and drive for achievement
  • High tolerance for stress and uncertainty

The list of values included:

  • Integrity
  • Curiosity
  • Stability
  • Self-knowledge
  • Respectful and inclusive of others

I also listed strategies employed by leaders who were widely admired. They included:

  • Envisioning
  • Collaborating
  • Listening
  • Coalition Building
  • Unifying

Bush embodied the lot. He was that rare thing – a real role model. He personified those qualities that we – the American people – profess most to want our leaders to exemplify. Humanity. Honesty. Decency.

Which raises the inevitable question: Why have we been willing to settle for so much less – what’s wrong with us?!



Leader Nausea

I’ve seen Vladimir Putin smile. I’ve seen Mohammed bin Salman smile. But I’ve never seen either grin as broadly as yesterday – while  high-fiving it on greeting each other in Buenos Aires.

The only good thing about the nauseating, noxious display of affection between these two nauseating, noxious men was it must’ve killed Donald Trump not to be part of it.

Fiasco at Facebook – A Systemic Analysis

At the Harvard Kennedy School I teach a course titled, “Leadership System – Leaders, Followers, Contexts.” I’ve also written for several years about the virtues of seeing leadership not through the narrow lens of single individuals, but rather through a wider lens, one that encompasses, in addition to leaders, also followers (or, simply, others) and contexts.

For example, in my book Hard Times: Leadership in America (Stanford University Press, 2015), I write, “I take issue with America’s relentless leader-centrism, with America’s obsessive fixation on leaders at the expense of followers, and at the expense of the contexts within which both necessarily are situated. Instead I argue for a more complete conception of how change is created. I have come to see leadership as a system consisting of three moving parts, each of which is equally important and each of which impinges equally on the other two. The first is the Leader. The second is the Follower. And the third is the Context.” (Context is the focus of Hard Times.)

I dwell on the systemic approach to leadership not only as an interesting intellectual exercise, which it is. But, also, because I have come firmly to believe that leadership pedagogy generally is excessively, detrimentally, leader-centric. And because I have come firmly to believe that by relegating or even ignoring entirely the other players that relate, and the circumstances within which every one necessarily is together embedded, we do leader learners a major disservice.

Here I apply the systemic approach to the fiasco at Facebook. My underlying hypothesis is that had Facebook’s two most powerful leaders themselves been less leader-centric, less myopic, they might well have avoided some serious stumbles. In other words, Facebook’s fiasco can be traced in good part to precisely the small-mindedness and short-sightedness the leadership industry should seek strenuously to avoid.

The Leaders

It cannot be coincidence that both Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, chief executive officer, and majority stockholder, and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, and board member, as well as founder of, each have about them the whiff of myth.

Zuckerberg is the boy wonder now grown up – or maybe not quite. His genius – both for technology and for elbowing the competition – was evident at an early age. Zuckerberg’s brief time as an undergraduate at Harvard was so worthy of note it was enshrined just a few years later in a film, “The Social Network,” which, notably, was nominated (in 2010) for eight Academy Awards. Though Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Zuckerberg was unsympathetic – let’s just say Eisenberg depicted him as a hard ass – the fact was that at the tender age of 26 Zuckerberg was the subject of a major Hollywood movie. He was, then, not just another prodigy, not just another marvel and mogul. Zuckerberg was something special, someone extra-ordinary, who had spun out of whole cloth a network that was literal as well as figurative, and that eventually enticed if not ensnared some 2.2 billion people to log on at least once a month.

Sheryl Sandberg has her own claim to extra-ordinary fame.  Yes, she was a preternaturally skilled standout from the start, managing to succeed brilliantly both in a corporate culture, and in a sector (technology), neither of which is usually hospitable to women. But there’s more. Sandberg has had a legitimate claim to be a feminist icon in the wake of her book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book, originally published in 2013, has since sold over 4 million copies worldwide. Moreover, it led to the formation of an international network of women,, which describes itself as a “global community dedicated to helping women achieve their ambitions.” In the five years since Lean In was published, reportedly some 400,000 people joined Lean In communities, creating some 34,000 Lean In Circles in over 157 countries. While it’s likely that the Lean In movement will suffer in consequence of Sandberg’s recent travails, no question that she, like Zuckerberg, has been a star not only on account of her astonishing accomplishments inside Facebook, but on account of the reputation she acquired outside it.

By all accounts Zuckerberg and Sandberg all along shared Facebook’s putatively lofty goals. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected,” was the company mantra. At the same time, they also came to share, for similar reasons, several deficits that would come in time to bedevil both them and their company: first, an inability or unwillingness to grasp that not everyone who uses Facebook does so with good intentions; second, an inability or unwillingness to see signs warning folks at Facebook that not everyone was following the company’s script; and third, an inability or unwillingness to recognize that as soon as their troubles became evident, they would have done better being transparent than opaque.

Everyone one of these deficits – for which Facebook is now paying a high price in more ways than one – is in consequence of the bubble. The bubble in which Zuckerberg and Sandberg were encased and enveloped, and that precluded them from properly perceiving what was transpiring outside.

The Contexts  

When Mark Zuckerberg was first asked about evidence that during the 2016 election Facebook had been to some extent ill-used, his response was to become defensive. “The idea that fake news on Facebook – of which, you know, it’s a very small amount of the content – influenced the election in any way, I think, is a pretty crazy idea.” While he later admitted that his initial reaction was “glib,” the damage was done. It seemed evidence that top management at Facebook was unable and/or unwilling to see and/or to disclose the truth. Given the contexts within which Facebook was operating, Zuckerberg’s defensiveness and evasiveness were more likely to do him, and his company, harm than good.

Here ten components of context that impacted on Facebook’s capacity to operate – and that therefore should have been foremost on management’s mind.

  1. Admiration for the tech industry generally was wearing thin. Indeed, the environment was growing increasingly hostile – the importance of which is impossible to overestimate. As Evan Osnos wrote last September in The New Yorker: “In barely two years, the mood in Washington had shifted. Internet companies and entrepreneurs, formerly valorized as the vanguard of American ingenuity and the astronauts of our time, were being compared to Standard Oil and other monopolies of the Gilded Age.”
  2. Admiration for the “astronauts” of the tech industry was also wearing thin. Several of those who previously were lionized such as Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, and Elon Musk were found to have clay feet, which tarnished not only them but tech moguls more generally. Arguably Bill Gates, who because of his shift away from Microsoft and toward philanthropy, is the only member of the tech vanguard to have lost not a single iota of his original luster.
  3. Whatever is going on in the United States is not necessarily the same as what is going on elsewhere in the world. Nor are Americans or American companies separate and distinct from the global context within which they are situated. It happens, for example, that in Europe antitrust laws are notably stronger, and sensitivities about privacy issues are notably greater. The European Union’s top antitrust regulator, a Dane by the name of Margrethe Vestager is especially tough on what she perceives to be unwarranted intrusions by Silicon Valley.
  4. Whatever is going on in the United States is not necessarily the same as what is going on elsewhere in the world. Nor are Americans or American companies separate and distinct from the global context within which they are situated. It happens, for example, that as far back as 2013 experts on Myanmar were meeting with Facebook officials to warn them their platform was spreading hate and fueling attacks on the Rohingya Muslim minority. Since then, blame for the calamity in Myanmar has been placed at least in part on the doorstep of Facebook. While how history will assign responsibility remains unclear, it is improbable that Facebook, that is, those who have led it,  will escape it entirely.
  5. We see it in politics – and in business. The context within which we are operating generally demands total or near total transparency. Woe to leaders who try to conceal the truth. Who to leaders who try to fudge the truth. Woe to leaders who try to bend the truth. Woe to leaders who try to escape the truth. Woe to leaders who try to deny the truth. At least in liberal democracies, such leaders are vulnerable to be hounded down until the truth be told.
  6. We live in a time that is fractured and fractious – and in which our public discourse has been coarsened and corroded. Even the most temperate among us are more likely, therefore, to attack than they would have been a decade ago. And they are more likely to be extreme in their position and aggressive in their opposition. For example, David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, recently argued that Sheryl Sandberg’s legacy will be “her inaction in solving the problems in fake news, the undermining of democracy, the failure to control hate speech.” Somewhat similarly, of Facebook itself the New York Times recently editorialized that, “perhaps uniquely, [it has] demonstrated a staggering lack of corporate responsibility and civic duty in the wake of the crisis.” Harsh judgments in harsh times.
  7. Not since the end of the Cold War has there been such Russia paranoia as there is now. This is not to claim that there is no good reason – even paranoids have real enemies. It is simply to say that Facebook’s role in enabling Russian wrongdoing – and then when it was found out to be seemingly offhand and cavalier in response – rankles more now than it would have several years ago, when America’s relationship with Russia was less hostile. Putin has – for the best of reasons – become an American punching bag, a contextual sensibility and sensitivity to which Facebook executives seemed initially oblivious.
  8. This is a great moment for American journalism. The press has distinguished itself by its careful, consistent investigations into a wide range of issues, including the politics and personality of Donald Trump. And including the stumbles and stonewalling at Facebook. Just last week the Times published an exceedingly detailed and damning article titled, “Delay, Deny, Deflect: How Facebook Leaders Leaned Out in Crisis.” Clearly,  among the many things that Facebook’s leaders did not comprehend about the context within which Facebook was situated was that this is a time in which journalists are eager to go after those with power and money – and unwilling to be deterred by their deflections and shenanigans.
  9. Apologies have gotten stale. They no longer work as well as they once did. Just a decade ago it was unusual for corporate executives – or for anyone else for that matter – publicly to admit their mistakes and then publicly to apologize. No longer. Now apologies are ubiquitous – famous men of every stripe especially regularly apologize for whatever their transgressions. What this inevitably means is that apologies themselves have become devalued – discounted. Clearly neither Zuckerberg nor Sandberg understood this – understood that the context within which they repeatedly apologized, not only at home but abroad, had become resistant to expressions of regret. Further, their apologies, as well as their retractions, typically came late. Just a few days ago, in a Thanksgiving eve memo, Sandberg issued an about-face, acknowledging that her earlier insistence that she was out of the loop on a matter of major importance was erroneous. That is, either it was a mistake, or it was a lie.
  10. In The End of Leadership (2012) I argued that especially in liberal democracies, leaders across the board were getting weaker and followers were getting stronger. While Sandberg is still being protected by Zuckerberg, and while Zuckerberg is still being protected by his board, I recommend both pay attention to the context within which Facebook is located. It suggests that no matter how apparently secure their positions, neither is immune from the temper of the time.

The Followers

The word – “followers” – still sets people’s teeth on edge. Many dislike it because they still equate followers with being passive, with being in some way weak. But, followership is simply the obverse of leadership. And leadership is simply a relationship in which the leader must have at least one follower. A follower, then, is no more than, and also no less than, an individual or a group the leader must bring along if he or she is to create change.

The point here is not to defend the word – “follower.” I myself use it simply because it is the antonym of “leader.” Here in any case my use of “follower” refers to those Facebook must bring along, or at least have on board, if it is to be left alone, not to mention thrive.

Here ten groups of followers that impacted on Facebook’s capacity to operate – and that therefore should have been foremost on management’s mind.

  1. The public. No surprise: the negative publicity Facebook faced in recent years has started to bite. The company’s relentless expansion has slowed, and its reputation for being trustworthy has taken a heavy hit. For some time now, the company has been embroiled in conversations about, among other things, fake news and Russian weaponizing of its platform to help Trump become president. As a result, Americans now trust Facebook less than any of its big tech competitors. According to a poll conducted by Reuters earlier this year, 51 percent of those surveyed “either said they didn’t trust the platform at all or didn’t trust it very much.” Moreover, 57 percent of people who were not on Facebook reported choosing to avoid it because they did not trust it.
  2. The press. In recent years, the press started to smell blood. And when the press smells blood, it chases its quarry until it brings it down. Of course, all behemoth companies are grist for the press’s mill. Additionally, because Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are famous, both individually and as a pair, they make especially tempting targets. Here The Guardian (in 2016) on just this issue: “Facebook has emerged as newspapers’ public enemy number one. Hardly a day passes in which there is no negative article about the social media website [and] in the past couple of weeks there has been something of an overload of criticism on a range of topics.”
  3. Facebook customers. In 2017 Facebook users in the 12 to 17-year old demographic declined by nearly 10 percent. This number was almost three times the decline that was anticipated. In 2018 the downward trend continued, in all age groups. But the group that hit Facebook hardest was the youngest. Some 20 percent of users aged 50 to 64 deleted Facebook’s app sometime between mid-2017 and mid-2018. But during the same period fully 44 percent of users between 18 and 29 told the Pew Research Center that they had done the same. Given Facebook’s continuing troubles during the last six months, it is unlikely, certainly in the short term, that this slide will be reversed.
  4. Facebook’s employees. Morale at Facebook has recently been reported to be “down in the dumps.” According to the Wall Street Journal, one year ago 84 percent of employees said they were optimistic about Facebook’s future. Now this figure has dropped to 52 percent. Employee commitment also took a hit: on average those who worked at Facebook said they planned to remain with the company for another 3.9 years, down from 4.3 twelve months earlier.
  5. Facebook’s prospective employees. There is at least preliminary evidence that young engineers are turning “sour on jobs with Facebook.” This from the New York Times (11/16/18): “As Facebook has been rocked by scandal after scandal, some young engineers are souring on the company. Many are still taking jobs there, but those who do are doing it a little more quietly, telling their friends that they will work to change it from within or that they will have carved out more ethical work at a company whose reputation has turned toxic.” While describing Facebook’s reputation as toxic might be hyperbolic, there is little doubt that the best and brightest might well elect to go elsewhere, at least for now.
  6. Facebook’s advertisers. Marketers have been worried about Facebook for some time. They are concerned that one of their ads will appear on Facebook in proximity to fake news or, worse, hate speech. Still, whatever their past reservations, recently they escalated. Again quoting the Times (11/16/18): “Advertisers are the financial engine of Facebook, but lately the relationship has gotten rocky.” The article quotes the chief growth officer of one of the world’s biggest ad companies who was harsh in his judgement. “Now we know that Facebook will do whatever it takes to make money. They have absolutely no morals.”
  7. Facebook’s competition. Facebook has broken ranks with other big tech companies more than once. Moreover, every now and then the competition becomes conflictual, and the exchanges veer from professional disagreement to personal dislike. For example, in the case of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple. There is no apparent advantage to Zuckerberg getting into a pissing match with Cook. But, that’s just what the CEO of Facebook choose to do. In fairness, Cook started it, when he ventured last spring that Facebook’s business model was founded on “an invasion of privacy” by trafficking in user data. Rankled by Cook’s insolence, Zuckerberg chose to hit back. He defended Facebook’s model, saying it was the only way to reach a mass global audience. He further accused Cook of being “glib.” He charged that Apple itself had a flawed business model. And he insisted that Facebook, presumably in contrast to Apple, was “not just serving rich people.” Suffice to say that if Zuckerberg wants a friend in Silicon Valley, he better get a dog.
  8. Facebook’s Investors. Some numbers and some analysis: As of this writing, Facebook’s stock has plummeted 40 percent from its all-time high. Additionally, Facebook’s earnings are expected to “slow materially” in 2019, and technical analyses suggest the company will be hit by still further losses. Of course, some would argue that this is a time to buy Facebook, not sell it. Still, attention must be paid when a major pension fund investor like NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer issues a statement such as this one: “Facebook plays an outsized role in our society and in our economy. They have a social and financial responsibility to be transparent – that’s why we’re demanding independence and accountability the company’s boardroom.”
  9. Facebook’s Opponents. Here I will single out for special mention just one group of activists, “Freedom from Facebook.” I will not delve into the history of this group, or address from where it gets its funding. Suffice to say in this space only that it has been at the forefront of the opposition. Freedom from Facebook has, for example, staged protests against the company on Capitol Hill. It has disrupted the company’s annual shareholder meeting (last May). And when Sandberg gave a talk at MIT, it took out an ad in a student newspaper that called for Facebook to be broken up.  The point though is less about what Freedom from Facebook has done in the past, than it is about what likeminded groups might do in the future.
  10. Republicans and Democrats – and civil servants. In the past, Democrats, including Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, allied themselves with Facebook. But such loyalties are now frayed. When the company ran into obvious trouble, and when the press and the public became increasingly critical, members of both parties did what they typically do – they fled. To be sure, Republicans have long been critical of Facebook, certain the platform censored conservative views. But now Democrats have piled on, embarrassed by their associations with a company whose reputation “turned toxic.” Nor have government agencies stayed on the sidelines. Facebook is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, by the Securities and Exchange Commission, by the Federal Trade Commission, and by the Justice Department. Need I say more?

This is a blog not a book. It is not a dive deep dive into exactly how and why Facebook unspooled as it did. Instead my intentions have been first to weave a tapestry not just with one thread but with three, each of which is integral to the whole, leaders, followers, and contexts. And second to tell a story that is cautionary. A caution to leaders who focus too much on what is internal – themselves, their organizations – and too little on what is external. That is, everything else and everyone else.

Private Sector Leaders/Public Sector Leanings – Frazier and Fink in Front

The trend has been in evidence for some time.  However, since Donald Trump become president it has accelerated. Increasingly leaders in business are recognizing that they cannot or, better, that they should not, divorce themselves entirely from government.

In recent decades leaders in business have been assessed according to a single, simple standard: how good they were at making money. At delivering profits to their shareholders. Other metrics – for example, employee satisfaction, environmental consideration, and community contribution – were largely discounted or even entirely ignored.

In recent years, however, this began to change. A turning point was when Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, announced in August 2017, that he was quitting the president’s business advisory council in the wake of the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, about which Trump had said there was “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” To which Frazier replied, in a subsequent statement that took issue with Trump’s claim that “many sides” had been responsible for what happened, “I feel a responsibility to take a stand against extremism.”

In an interview some months later, Frazier further expanded on his decision publicly to distance himself from the nation’s chief executive. Last February he said it was his opinion “that to not take a stand on this would be viewed as a tacit endorsement of what had happened and what was said. I think words have consequences, and I think actions have consequences. I just felt that as a matter of my own personal conscience, I could not remain.”  Frazier continues his quiet but consistent campaign to involve the private sector at least somewhat more directly in issues lodged in the public sector. Just days before the recent midterm elections, he said that “as a group of business leaders, we have to think about the impact to our society of what’s happening in the political discussions in our country.”  

By no means is Frazier alone in his leanings. For example, Black Rock CEO, Larry Fink, is of similar mind and early this year he went similarly public. In a by now frequently cited letter to other CEOs, Fink wrote that “companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers and the communities in which they operate.” Since then Fink has continued to remain committed to expanding our conception of the purpose of big business.  “I do believe,” he said recently, “that the demand for E.S. G. is going to transform all investing.” (E.S.G. means metrics including environmental, social, and governance impact.) Additionally Fink continues to predict without hesitation or reservation that E.S. G. is the wave of the future. He estimates that the change in how we measure corporate success – and, necessarily, CEO performance – “may be one or five years from now, but it’s not that far away.”

Neither Frazier nor Fink are expressing ideas that are altogether new. Notions of corporate social responsibility have been around for some time, and many companies have paid them lip service. But there is an enormous chasm between lip service and public service. If this chasm comes in the near term more clearly and quickly to close, it will be leaders like Frazier and Fink who paved the way.  



Standards Redux

Do I sound like an old fogey when I speak about, write about, leaders as professionals? Leaders that are expected to, even required to, live up to the standards, the high standards, that we expect of professionals?

If yes, I am not alone. Here’s a not-so-old voice sounding the same sentiments. On November 16, David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about conservatism in America.

If conservatism is ever to recover it has to achieve two large tasks. First, it has to find a moral purpose large enough to displace the lure of blood-and-soil nationalism. Second, it has to restore standards of professional competence and reassert the importance of experience, integrity, and political craftsmanship. When you take away excellence and integrity, loyalty to the great leader is the only currency that remains.

Notice the explicit association between high “standards” and “professional competence.” When I reference professionalizing leadership this is, above all, what I intend also to suggest. That to professionalize the pedagogy of learning to lead is, by definition, to improve the pedagogy of learning to lead. The content of the pedagogy is less important than the process of the pedagogy – which ought absolutely similarly imply “excellence and integrity.”

Followers Stopping Following

It was an amazement! After just two days, a worldwide strike by antiquarian booksellers against a subsidiary of among the biggest behemoths in the world, Amazon, succeeded.  As the New York Times summarized it, “It was a rare concerted uprising against any part of Amazon by any of its millions of suppliers, leading to an even rarer capitulation.”  I’ll say it was rare. This sequence, and the rapidity of it, was unprecedented. Why exactly Amazon surrendered so quickly remains unclear. Suffice to say it was an unusual chink in its generally impermeable armor.

But, this was even more of an amazement! In this case not so much because it was an action against another behemoth – in this case Google – but because it was not the first in a similar series. Google leaders have been the target of Google followers before, which suggests the beginnings of a  sea change. A sea change in which technology workers protest technology owners.

Last summer Google employees got Google employers to ditch Project Maven, a plan for cooperating with the Pentagon to develop software for targeting drone strikes. Last week Google employees got Google employers to take notice when some 20,000 of the former walked out to protest a culture of sexual harassment tolerated, if not fostered, by the latter. Never in the history of the tech industry has the leadership class so seriously and, now, serially, been challenged by the followership class.

I do not want to get carried away here. I am not predicting permanent revolution. But I am predicting occasional resistance. I am predicting a future in which tech workers – and maybe, increasingly, other workers as well – are more aware of their collective clout than they were before. Or, better, than they have been since the near complete collapse of unions, which in the past did just that. Which in the past got workers with shared interests to organize to make their voices heard.

Essentially employees who effectively challenge employers must take two steps. First, they must develop a collective consciousness. They must come to understand that, as a group, they are essential, critical, to the functioning of the company. Second, they must develop a sensible strategy. They must plan a series of steps in which, by joining forces, they can exercise major muscle.

Tech workers are generally well educated and well compensated. It would be an irony, then, if they led a revival of something even vaguely resembling a social, political, and economic movement.  But you never know. While the future has yet to reveal itself, the present feels decidedly different from the past.

Added note: Two articles in the New York Times elaborate on the points I make in this post. Their high quality leads me to provide the links.


Checks and Balances – Not Reliable, Not Effective

Even the most reasoned and reasonable constitutions reflect the fear and loathing of those who drafted them. The fear is that unless checks and balances are included, and implemented, bad leaders might, indeed someday will, win out. Human nature is just too malleable, too unreliable, fully to trust it. The loathing is of the authoritarianism and even despotism that are certain at some point to win out – absent the checks and balances intended to curtail and control them.

The reason tomorrow’s midterm election is widely considered the most important midterm ever in American history is precisely because the system of checks and balances that until recently seemed impregnable, now seems vulnerable. Given the presidency of Donald Trump, and given the Republican led Congress, which in consequence of his presidency and personality has been supine, and given the federal judiciary, which has been rapidly and, yes, efficiently staffed by Trump and his Department of Justice, the checks and balances on which Americans have come to depend are, at least for now, undependable.

Small wonder that Americans are being feverishly and fervently urged to vote. Given that the legislature and the judiciary have been enfeebled to the point of inefficacy, only ordinary people are left to stand guard. Only the American electorate can trump Trump!

Leader Being Followed – as in Hounded

George Soros is now 88 years old. He is a Hungarian born Jew who, in the aftermath of World War II, left Hungary for England, before settling finally in the United States.

Soros has been prominent as a leader in two different domains. The first is in finance. For the last fifty years or so he has been among the world’s leading investors. Soros’s investments in companies and, especially, in currencies, were daringly speculative and exceptionally lucrative. In the 1980s The Economist called him “the world’s most intriguing investor.” And in the 1990s his audacious decision to bet the family farm on shorting the pound earned him, according to the New York Times, a “profit of $1 billion.”

For the last forty years or so, he has been, in addition, among the world’s leading philanthropists. It is not too much to say that Soros has been as singular a leader in the world of philanthropy as in the world of finance. Through his Open Society Foundations, he invested enormous sums in nothing less ambitious than the democratization of the countries of East Europe, especially in the years preceding and succeeding the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was an intention of breathtaking proportion – it is safe to say that no single individual did more to democratize the countries of the former Soviet bloc than did Soros.

In more recent years, Soros increasingly turned his attention to politics in the U. S. He became in time one of the largest contributors to the Democratic Party and to various Democratic candidates. In the 2004 he donated $27 million to defeat President George W. Bush. In 2016 he donated more than $16 million to groups supporting Hillary Clinton. And, according to the Times, during this electoral cycle he has given more than $15 million to support various Democratic candidates at the federal level. Soros has, in other words, spent enormous sums of money supporting multiple liberal causes both at home and abroad.

There is one last arena in which Soros has been a leader. In fact, as the special target of anti-Semitic attacks in recent years, again both at home and abroad, he has been so far ahead he has been the canary in the coal mine. I will not here detail the nature or the extent of the attacks on Soros. I will say that they have been, during the regime of Viktor Orban, especially vicious and vitriolic in Hungary. And I will say that they have been, during the regime of Donald Trump, especially vicious and vitriolic in the United States.

It has in short come to this:

Soros is being followed now not as a leader – but as a victim. He is being followed as in hounded. He is being persecuted because he is inordinately rich, because he is deeply political, and because he is manifestly Jewish. A Jewish canary in a deep dark coal mine.




What follows is the text of a keynote speech that I delivered on October 27, 2018, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association (ILA) meeting in West Palm Beach.

One day, late last August, the New York Times printed and posted several articles that signal this speech on Standards.

When Erin Schrode ran for Congress in 2016 she woke to find tens of thousands of messages in her e mail, on her phone, and posted to her various other social media. One said, “All would laugh with glee as they gang raped her and then bashed her bagel-eating brains in.” Another said, “It’d be amusing to see her take twenty or so for 8 or 10 hours,” again suggesting gang-rape. In the case of Erin Schrode at least, the abuses – a toxic sludge of online trolling steeped in misogyny and anti-Semitism, that also included photo-shopped images of her face stretched into a Nazi lampshade, and references to “pre-heating the ovens” – never stopped.

In this election cycle, in 2018, the abuses against women in politics have only increased. A Democrat running for a congressional seat in Iowa, Kim Weaver, gave up her campaign against the Republican incumbent when a neo-Nazi web site published an article about her titled, “Meet the Whore Who’s Running Against Steven King.”

On the same day, it was August 26th to be precise, the Times published another article on a different subject altogether, that nevertheless was all about, you got it, the erosion of standards that in recent years has gone from creep to gallop. “Trump Assails Legal System,” ran the headline, “Eroding Trust.” Whatever you might think of President Donald Trump, it is inarguable that in the last year he has relentlessly criticized the Justice Department; fired some of its top officials; questioned the integrity of prosecutors leading the Russia investigation; mercilessly demeaned and defiled his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions; and, more generally, recklessly bandied about terms with possible legal implications such as “flip,” “witch hunt,” “treason,” and “lock her up.” The president’s flagrant flaunting of respect for the law, and for that matter for anything resembling civil discourse more generally, threatens increasingly not only to further erode faith in our legal system, but, more importantly, to further erode public trust in the various pillars of American democracy.

I hasten to add the American presidency is not the only institution so diminished. As we recently witnessed, the Senate has dropped the rules of decorum that for most of American history were the hallmark of what once was referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” And it manifestly shed some simple but, one would have thought, essential standards such as veracity, and the virtues of the rules of evidence. That the Supreme Court has itself recently been diminished in the eyes of many if not most Americans, goes nearly without saying.

Nor are standards being eroded only in the public sector. As that same issue of the Times testified, the private sector contributes mightily to the sense in the US that something’s off, that something – that everything – is in decline. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth companies in several of the nation’s key industries suppress both wages and growth. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth technology companies control too much of our individual lives, and intrude on too much of our collective lives. And, there is the growing suspicion that those few at the top see nothing wrong with their being infinitely better off even than those in the middle, and certainly than those at the bottom. Since 1978 the average American paycheck increased 11.2%. During this same period the average CEO’s pay increased 937%. Even the American Dream has effectively vanished – or, better, moved north, to Canada. Moving from the bottom 5th of income level to the top 5th, is now twice as likely to happen in Canada as in the US.

Nor, obviously, have standards been eroded only in the United States. Again, in that very same issue of the NY Times was an article that described the Irish Catholic Church as being “in tatters;” that alluded to related, wretched, recent abuses uncovered in Chile, as well as in the US; and that described a Pope, Pope Francis obviously, who was repeatedly reduced to voicing regret at the legacy of abuse in the Catholic Church worldwide.

Of course, the Church is not the only institution that has been so charged. Moreover, one could argue that the revelations of abuse of minors, which cascaded beginning in 2002, are helping to restore standards, not abetting their diminishment still further. But it cannot be denied that the revelations themselves, and the Church’s real reluctance fully to face the implications thereof, have contributed significantly to the sense that what we used to assume were generally high standards of behavior by people in positions of authority – whether priests or teachers, judges or generals, private sector executives or public sector politicians – was an illusion. Where once we thought, or perhaps foolishly presumed, were generally high standards of personal and professional conduct, now we know this was an illusion.

This is not, of course, to say that every leader is bad, painted with a sullied brush. Rather it is to say that we have a stronger sense that people, all people, no matter their status or station, are complicated: a mix of passions, proclivities and personalities; drives, motives and incentives; sensitivities, sensibilities, and standards. Additionally, now we now know that in some cases were no standards at all, at least not as we conventionally think of them. No standards at the level of the institution (think Volkswagen or Wells Fargo; the Department of the Interior or the city of Flint, MI); and no standards at the level of the individual (think Travis Kalanick, Paul Manafort, or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin).

Since I am speaking today to you, members of the International Leadership Association, let me state directly that leaders – defined for the present purpose as those in positions of power and authority – have contributed mightily to this decline in the erosion of standards or, at a minimum, to the perceived decline.

For our purpose. the reasons for this are twofold. The first are changes in our culture, arguably especially those that relate to levels of transparency. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the details of dalliances of presidents of the United States. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the drinking habits and sexual proclivities of nominees for the Supreme Court. We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the intricacies of intimacies practiced by men in position of power and authority on women who are not. (And yes, sex plays an important role in this cultural shift….)  We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the truths about taxes and finances; about monies stashed at home or abroad; about hidden bank accounts, secret payoffs, and shady dealings.

The level of transparency is now such that people with zero power, authority, or influence feel more entitled to be told whatever there is to be told about those who rank higher than they. We now have victims of clerical abuse stepping up and willingly testifying to what was done to them when they were children and adolescents. We now have investigative reporters unearthing dirt on some of the highest and mightiest of our species. We now have women coming out and taking on men in ways previously unheard of. The result is that leaders have been increasingly demystified. Something of a sea change!

The extreme changes in our culture have, of course, been aided and abetted by the extreme changes in our technologies. I need hardly point out to this group the impact of social media on patterns of dominance and deference, on the dynamics between those who apparently are powerful and those who apparently are powerless. The #MeToo movement, arguably led by the work of three investigative journalists, is just one example, albeit a striking one, of the intersections of which I speak. The #MeToo movement is all about sex; or, if you prefer, it is all about dominance and submission; or, if you prefer, it is all about power and the lack thereof. It is, in any case, about behaviors that went nearly entirely unreported for most of human history but that have become, only recently, grist for our collective mill.

The fact that sexual harassment and sexual abuse, along with other nasty proclivities such as virulent racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, have, to a degree, been outed, certainly in the United States, is attributable to changes in the culture. But, this outing would have been impossible absent the presence of social media, a technology that has enabled, indeed encouraged, an uncontainable contagion. There is a reason that authoritarian systems are hellbent now on controlling the internet!

Sad to say that the severe erosion of leadership – the destructive, dramatic decline in standards, in the conviction that the US is exceptional in its moral core, in trust in leading individuals and in the institutions that they profess to lead – has coincided completely with the rise of, the burgeoning of, what some of you in this audience know that I refer to as the leadership industry. The two axes intersect almost exactly. The decline of the one, leadership, intersects with the rise of the other, the leadership industry.

I, at least, think this must, or at least it should, give us pause. I am not, of course, suggesting that the leadership industry – of which virtually every one of us here in attendance is a card-carrying member – is responsible for this decline. What I am saying though is that, manifestly, we have been unable to stop it, to stem the tarnished tide. We, we in the leadership industry, continue to do our thing, while the context within which inevitably we are embedded testifies to the inability of leaders – most strikingly, most sadly, in liberal democracies – to make followers feel that they are being led wisely and well.

While leaders in other sectors are, as indicated, not immune, the decline of political leaders in liberal democracies, especially in the last five years or so, has been especially painful to witness. Nearly no nation has been immune to the trend. The US as an example, under President Donald Trump, is obvious. Great Britain has struggled, is struggling, mightily, to its indefinite detriment, with the question of how to manage Brexit. France’s Emanuel Macron, just 18 months ago widely perceived a boy wonder, has endured a strikingly rapid and dramatic decline in his approval ratings. Angela Merkel, for years a stalwart of Western leadership, is manifestly on the wane and on her way out. Sweden, in most of our eyes a paragon of Western virtues, is enduring a crisis of governance and confidence. Europe’s eastern countries – such as Austria, Hungary, and Poland – have had their democracies put to the test by shifts toward populism, nationalism, and some would argue flat out authoritarianism. In our own hemisphere, Brazil and Venezuela testify to how close we are to various, dangerous precipices. And nations that less than ten years ago had shown signs of loosening the reins of authority – nations such as Russia, China, Egypt, and Turkey – have in more recent years reverted to tightening them. Each of these countries, and then some, are more oppressive and repressive than they were a decade ago. Standards of human decency, human rights, have not ascended; they have descended.

Which brings us inevitably to two hard questions. The first is general: How and why during the last decade did we arrive at this sorry pass? As I suggested, larger forces are at play here, such as changes in culture and technology. There is, additionally, the overarching trajectory of human history, and the various cycles of human history, to which I often in my teaching and writing refer. The second question is specific. What has the leadership industry – specifically those of us deeply dedicated to a well-intentioned association such as this one, the International Leadership Association, on this occasion justly celebrating its 20th anniversary – done to address the deep, steep decline in trust in what we might broadly call the leadership class?  What in other words, have we, we putative leadership experts, contributed to the improvement of the human condition during a time when leading in liberal democracies, indeed leading everywhere, seems more complex, complicated, convoluted, and confounding a task than ever? How have we been responsible, accountable?

I do not for one moment question the proposition that as individuals, and in groups, those of us in the International Leadership Association have done good work.

What I do question though is whether the work that we have done is good enough. What I do question though is whether the good work that we did do is being adequately disseminated and actually implemented. What I do question though is whether as individuals and especially as a collective we have done enough to address the decline in standards to which I here refer. What I do question though is whether we have taken a good, hard look at the work we do as a critical mass of leadership experts, leadership professionals. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to elevate leaders in the eyes of their followers. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to raise the standards to which leaders are held. What I do question though is whether all of us, including those of us putative experts and educators in this organization, the International Leadership Association, have done the very best we know how to help leaders, and leader learners, do better.

Let me provide just one quick but telling example. My colleague and friend, Denny Roberts, recently brought to my attention the fact that in 2012 the Board of the International Leadership Association was presented with a White Paper that called for “more conscious attention to both legitimacy and accountability of leadership as a field of study within higher education.” This White Paper is a sensible, smart, serious attempt to apply standards to leadership learning, standards that include steps such as internal program reviews, external program reviews, certification, and accreditation. But, as I further understand it, the ILA Board tabled the idea at the time, which is where the White Paper, as of now, still sits. One line from the concluding section of this paper reads, “It is the recommendation of the Formalized Program Review Task Force that, as part of its offerings/services, the International Leadership Association establish external formalized program reviews.”

I want to be clear here. I was not part of this White Paper Task Force. And I was not privy to any of the relevant discussions either within the ILA or outside it. I am therefore in no position to know what happened or why. But I raise the subject because it pertains, directly, to my general concern about setting standards for leaders, and to my specific concern about what the ILA could do, should do, to foster the establishment and indeed the implementation of such standards. As if it were, or aspired to become, a professional association.

Some of you in this audience will know that I have spent nearly all my professional life in Leadership Studies. That is, my primary interest has been in leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry. But as a few of you in this audience likely additionally know, in my last book, Professionalizing Leadership, I took a turn. I turned from Leadership Studies to Leadership Development, specifically to the matter of how we teach how to lead.

Why did I do this? Why after all this time did I turn to the question of how we teach how to lead? The answers are simple. First because I did not like what I saw – the unrelenting decline in trust in the leadership class, particularly in liberal democracies. Second because I did not like what I saw – the failure of too many leadership teachers, leadership administrators, leadership facilitators, leadership coaches, leadership consultants, leadership you-name- it, to raise their, our, game and to insist that other leadership experts do the same. In short, I am disturbed by our collective failure to raise the standards to which we adhere. Or, indeed, as a collective to establish any standards at all.

I will not here reiterate the argument I make in Professionalizing Leadership. In fact, I am aware that a few of you recently debated the merits – and deficits – of what I wrote. I will, however, reiterate the book’s overarching point. That unless we leadership experts take on some of the trappings of professionals – say doctors or lawyers – we endanger our reputations, which in any case are tenuous at best. This is not to say that professionalism has spared doctors, for instance, from the decline in trust, or from, as Tom Nichols put it, the death of expertise. To the contrary. The medical profession is also experiencing growing distrust. But not at the same rate as the leadership class, not even close. Moreover, while our level of trust in doctors has declined, most of us do not hesitate even now to go to a medical professional with a medical question or concern. We know that, generally, our doctors have been well educated and well trained, and that throughout their professional lives most will be required to continue to learn. And so, generally, we deem them both reasonably ethical and reasonably effective.

Leaders, in contrast – the military being a major exception to this general rule – are not required to provide even a scintilla of evidence that they have been educated to lead, or trained to lead, or developed as leaders. Moreover, they are not asked to meet any kind of requirement, or to provide any sort of certification of excellence – even of competence. Ironically, we do typically require evidence of competence from our hair dressers and truck drivers, from our dog groomers and coal miners and day care workers. We do not, though, require any such evidence from our leaders – not even from those who would aspire to ascend to the nation’s highest political office.

Would you believe that it is possible – hypothetically, theoretically, ostensibly and supposedly possible – to become President of the United States of America without any political, or government, or military experience or expertise whatsoever?!