Bad Leadership, Good Followership

What, in the face of bad leadership, dangerously bad leadership, does good followership consist of?

It does not consist of turning away, of willful avoidance.

It does not consist of deliberately deciding to say nothing and do nothing.

It does not consist of mouthing off – in private.

It does not consist of small acts of defiance in response to major misdeeds.

It does consist of resistance – unremitting, unrelenting, unwavering, unconcealed, unmistakable, and unafraid resistance.

It consists of acts like this.

To Save the Planet – Leadership

To lead in the best of circumstances is difficult. To lead in the worst of circumstances is near impossible. Such is the case with climate change. Leadership on the issue of climate change is leadership in the worst of circumstances. It is near impossible.

This essay reeks of gloom – it provides no easy answer or quick fix. Instead it provides an explanation for why, as the planet demonstrably gets hotter, and sea levels demonstrably rise, humankind has been unable, completely, so far at least, to rise to the challenge. We feel the heat, literally, metaphorically, but we are unable to act, to make the gargantuan effort that would be required to retard and repair the growing damage. The following excerpts from the following works explain why.

  • From the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change, quoted in Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (p. 224).

Climate change presents perhaps the most profound challenge ever to have confronted human, social, political, and economic systems. The stakes are massive, the risks and uncertainties severe, the economics controversial, the science besieged, the politics bitter and complicated, the psychology puzzling, the impacts devastating, the interactions with other environmental and no-environmental issues running in many directions. The social problem-solving mechanisms we currently possess were not designed and have not evolve to cope with anything like an interlinked set of problems of this severity, scale, and complexity. There are no precedents.  

  • From Barbara Kellerman, Hard Times: Leadership in America (p. 225).

What, more precisely, do leaders have to contend with? Why is this problem so profound? First is the level of its complexity: climate is a “system that is characterized by multiple driving forces, strong feedback loops, long time lags, and abrupt change behavior.” Second, climate entails concepts, even language, with which most lay people, including leaders in government and business, are not familiar…Third, climate change is not a national problem, but an international, multinational, transnational one….Fourth, the time horizon on climate change is close to meaningless, especially to leaders, who tend to think short term, not long term. Fifth, the problem of climate change entails equity or, better, inequity. For example, although China recently overtook the U. S. as the largest single national emitter of carbon dioxide, the figures per capita tell a different story…Finally, the problem of climate change is so “profound” because of probable “tipping points” – the collapse of large polar ice sheets, for instance, or large-scale changes in ocean circulation that could trigger an “unexpectedly large and rapid or irreversible change.” In sum, the problems presented by climate change seem so overwhelming that leaders have inclined to ignore them.    

  • From Nathanial Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change. A Tragedy in Two Acts” in the New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.

We know that if we don’t act to reduce emissions we risk the collapse of civilization…. So we worry about the future. But how much exactly? The answer, as any economist could tell you, is very little. Economics, the science of assigning value to human behavior, prices the future at a discount: the further out you project, the cheaper the consequences. This makes the climate problem the perfect economic disaster….Human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties, or as individuals are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations…. If human beings really were able to take the long view – to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths – we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term, and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.  


Les and Sex

Leslie (“Les”) Moonves is Chairman of the Board of CBS Corporation. He is President of CBS Corporation. And he is the Chief Executive Officer of CBS Corporation. For his efforts he is paid $69.3 million a year.

By most measures Moonves has been an extraordinarily successful leader. He has been according to one observer, a rainmaker and a kingmaker, having transformed CBS television from last place to most watched, and having made for his employer fistfuls and fistfuls and fistfuls of money.

Les Moonves has also been accused, recently, in an article in The New Yorker written by Ronan Farrow, of sexual misconduct. Though the article is not gospel, it was carefully vetted and thoroughly documented. Six women testified that Moonves had sexually harassed them, and then retaliated when they rebuffed him. Another thirty current and former CBS employees described a workplace environment characterized by harassment and discrimination. As Bryce Covert summarized it, CBS was a place where “abusers were promoted, not investigated.”

Moonves responded to the charges with a statement saying that on his watch CBS had “promoted a culture of respect and opportunity for all employees.” He did admit however that “there were times decades ago when I may have made some women uncomfortable by making advances.” And he did go on to apologize. “These were mistakes and I regret them immensely.” But Moonves went on vehemently to deny that he had ever retaliated for rejection. “I have never misused my position to harm or hinder anyone’s career.” Which of course flies in the face of what is alleged by those who claim to be his victims.

Meantime CBS’s Board opted to give Moonves a pass, at least for now. During a meeting held shortly after the publication of Farrow’s article, the Board decided that Moonves should be investigated – but left in place. So, in spite of the publicly prominent and well-documented charges against him, Moonves remains for the time being king of all he surveys.

Moonves is only the most recent prominent example of leadership and sex twinned and tangled. To believe otherwise is to believe that the entirety of Farrow’s article was fabricated, and that Moonves himself manufactured his “mistakes.” Not bloody likely. Doubtless there was misconduct, though the quality and quantity thereof, remains unclear.

What remains equally unclear is why men in positions of power – leaders – use sex as a means of control. They do not need forced physicality to satisfy their sexual appetites. Power, is, after all, “the ultimate aphrodisiac.” It grants men easy access to sex whatever their faults,  foibles, and failings. There is no need then for men with power to sexually harass or assault women – no need if what they are after is, simply, sex. Which seems to mean that what they need, or at any rate want, is other than sex. Which seems to mean what they need, or at any rate want, is to dominate. Which seems to mean that what they need, or at any rate want, is to dominate not only in the workplace but everyplace else.

Manifestly not every leader is so afflicted. But many are. As most of us have come to know, based only on our own personal and professional experience,  the desire to dominate is more perversive and pervasive than we like to think. The desire to dominate takes different forms. And the desire to dominate is not confined to people with a penis.

A Leader – the Real Deal

The word, “leader,” is bandied about far too freely and frivolously. It’s almost lost its currency.

But, every now and then, it’s applied correctly, to the real thing, to  a leader worthy of the appellation. Such is the case with Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has, of course, long been known as a pioneer on women’s rights, arguing decades ago, long before it was fashionable, that women should be treated equally, in every way, to men. Similarly, she has long held a seat on the Supreme Court and, as such, has been in the highest ranks of American jurisprudence.

But recently she has enjoyed something of a renaissance, or, perhaps better, renewed appreciation along with cultural currency. To wit: several new books about her; an upcoming biopic; and a documentary about her life and work, “RBG,” that, remarkably, has proved popular.

And now, unwittingly perhaps, or perhaps not, she has staked a new claim – against ageism. When she was asked a couple of days ago about her eventual retirement – she is, after all, 85 – she veritably pooh-poohed the idea. Instead she estimated that she had, “at least five more years” on the bench. At least!

What a blow against the notion that old people, necessarily, have a sell-by date. What a blow against the notion that old people, necessarily, should make way for young people. What a blow against the notion that old people, necessarily, are enfeebled both cognitively and physically.

In America biases – conscious and unconscious – against old people are intact. Unlike other, somewhat similar prejudices, ageism is largely unchallenged and uncontested. It remains, then, for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to play once more the role of dragon slayer. The role of leader against a bias that should prove fertile soil for her fertile self.


Learning to Lead – Learning Lifelong

How’s this for a stark fact? Citigroup’s investment bank head recently said the bank was likely to shed half its 20,000 technology and operations staff in the next five years. Why? Automation, of course. Yet another example of machines in the workplace replacing humans in the workplace.

Which raises this question. Can leaders change with the changing times? Can leaders stay nimble enough, elastic enough, fluid and flexible enough to stay ahead of the curve – a curve that will become more treacherous as artificial intelligence supplants (or expands on) automation as the single greatest challenge to employers as well as their employees.

In Bad Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2004) I wrote about seven different types of bad leadership, one of which was Rigid. I described Rigid Leadership as follows: The leader and at least some followers are stiff and unyielding. Although they may be competent, they are unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas, new information, or changing times. Rigid leaders are, then, nothing new. But the context within which all leaders inevitably are operating is new. It is more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) in the present than it was in the past. Therefore, the need for leaders to be other than rigid – to be the converse of rigid – is the more urgent.

Let’s say you’re leader – how to remain at the top of your game? How to continue to be nimble as opposed to getting stuck? The answer is to think of learning to lead as learning in three parts. The first is leadership education. The second is leadership training. The third is leadership development.*

Leadership development is analogous to adult development. It suggests change and growth that takes place over a lifetime. It suggests that talent and competence and ability are not fixed – instead they can be adapted and expanded as the occasion arises, so long as we are open not closed. Doctors and lawyers, professionals generally, must continue to learn, to develop, if they are to continue to work. Why should leaders be any different?


*For more on this all-important triad, see my book, Professionalizing Leadership (Oxford University Press, 2018).



Being a Mother, Being a Leader… Continued….

Since I started writing about the relationship between leadership and motherhood – just a year or so ago – the impact of being pregnant and having a baby on the one hand, and women and work on the other, has gone from back burner issue to front burner one. While a recent article in the New York Times does not focus on women and leadership per se, the relationship between women (at any level) getting pregnant and women climbing the professional ladder is clear. Put directly, women at work are penalized if they become pregnant.

The Times article is a terrific piece of investigative reporting. After reviewing thousands of pages of court and public records, and conducting dozens of interviews with women, their lawyers, and government officials, that authors concluded that a clear pattern emerged. “Many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women. They pass them over for promotions and raises. They fire them when they complain.”*

While the article focused on the impact of pregnancy, it made clear that after a baby was born the differential between women and men became even greater. It cited a recent Census Bureau paper that found that two years before a couple had their first child, husbands made only slightly more than their wives. But, by the time their child turned 1, the size of the spousal pay gap had climbed to more than $25,000.

As I see it, most of the literature on women in the workplace, especially the literature on women and leadership, must be, if not amended, at least expanded. From this point on it must take into account how having a child impacts and influences a woman’s destiny – not only personally but professionally.


Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Penalizing Pregnancy, From Walmart to Wall St.” NYT, June 17, 2018. Also see my blogs dated, January 21, 2018; January 27, 2018; February 11, 2018; February 25, 2018; and March 14, 2018.


Under Attack – Leaders

I refer not to political leaders. Not, say, to the American president, who in the last several hours set off a firestorm of criticism against him. I refer to corporate leaders, who in the last several years have been under assault as never before in the history of big business.

The attacks against chief executive officers have come from several directions – the press and the people among them. But at the top of the list of aggressors are investor activists. Activists who take aim at the highest levels of corporate leadership and management.

Such attacks are increasing not only in quality – they are notably more effective in the present than in the past – but in quantity. The Wall Street Journal reports that during the first half of this year, activists spent $40 billion targeting 136 companies with market values of more than $500 million. This is by far the most since 2013, when the data was first collected. And, it is up significantly from the same period last year. Moreover we are talking here attacks not only against small companies, with names you’ve never heard of. But attacks against big companies, with household names such as Xerox, Procter & Gamble, and Microsoft.

When activists get into the act, CEOs are, inevitably, without exception, themselves under attack. Their performances are being openly and aggressively questioned. Their professionalism is being obviously and antagonistically judged. Boards become edgy, stockholders become judgmental, the press and the public become aware that blood is being drawn.

What are CEOs to do? How to defend themselves without humiliating themselves? Without permanently, ruinously undermining their reputations? Most of the time the answer has been … compromise. Reaching some sort of settlement in which CEOs give up some of their power and authority in order not to surrender all of their power and authority.

During the first half of this year activists won a record-setting 119 board seats – over 85% of them through settlements. CEOs seem generally to have  concluded better to give up part of the loaf than risk the whole of the loaf.


Followers and their Foes

Most followers have foes. Leaders’ top task is to protect their followers from their foes. When leaders fail to protect their followers from their foes, leaders fail their followers, period.

For the forty-year period from the late 1940s to the late 1980s the Soviet Union and the United States of America were declared enemies, locked in a Cold War which ended only when the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991. During the most of the nearly three decades that followed, Russia and America have continued much more combative than collaborative. They have not been and are not now, friends. To the contrary, Russia and America are foes. Not simply competitors, but adversaries.

  • Historical adversaries
  • Ideological adversaries
  • Military adversaries
  • Political adversaries
  • Economic adversaries
  • Technological adversaries

Every president from George Herbert Walker Bush to Barack Obama has understood this geopolitical truism. This is not to say that every president has had an effective response to Russian aggression. In 2014 when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, Obama stood by and effectively did nothing. But it is to say that no president has failed to understand the fundamentally adversarial nature of the relationship. Until now.

No need to reiterate President Donald Trump’s curious, chronic, subservience to President Vladimir Putin. Suffice to say here it has now been proven that Russia launched a cyberattack against the United States. Against the American electoral system, the beating heart of its democracy. If President Trump does not do everything in his power to protect the American people from this existential threat – that persists as I write – he will betray his oath of office. An oath that reads in part, “I … will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”


“Dangerous Ignoramus”

Some of you might’ve noticed – I love alliteration. So, wish I could take credit for the above phrase, but I cannot. It’s Martin Wolf’s, who a few days ago applied it to – guess who – Donald Trump.

I don’t write often about Trump. He is the most arduously and assiduously covered political animal ever – and, generally, enough is enough. But, when something changes, he’s worth a few words. This time what’s changed, if only slightly, is not him, of course, not the leader, but his followers. For the first time during his time in the White House, Trump’s being a dangerous ignoramus has roused his sleeping subjects. It has roused Republicans. Even Republicans – heretofore nearly entirely servile and silent – have felt obliged to go on record against their president who is trying, though he will fail, to overturn some 75 years of post-World War II history.

The two resolutions are nonbinding. Nevertheless, both the House and the Senate did, finally, contradict the president. While Trump was in Brussels demonstrating yet again he was a dangerous ignoramus, Congress affirmed with only a few dissenting Republican votes U.S. support for NATO.  Paul Ryan went so far as to open his mouth. “NATO is indispensable,” he said, proving he could speak. “It’s as important today as it ever has been.”

Additionally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has tried his level best to carry out the president’s policies in North Korea as well as in Europe, started publicly to choke on his boss’s bile. Dissed and embarrassed just a few days ago by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in Brussels Pompeo was reduced to being mute while Trump confronted America’s NATO allies and lashed out at Germany particularly. But, this time the Secretary did not stay silent. Not long after Trump’s tirade against NATO, Pompeo tweeted it was nothing less than “the most important alliance in history.”

Trump tempts. He is an old hand at tempting you and me to focus laser-like on him – him alone. But, when the history of his administration is written, it will be clear that blame lies elsewhere. Responsibility for his miserable presidency rests with those among us who let him get away for as long as he did with what he did.


Poland’s Problem

Liberal democracy is in trouble worldwide. Times are tough for those of us who believe in old fashioned virtues such as the rule of law and divided government. But nowhere in the world is democracy in decline so painful to watch as in Poland.

Poland is large – its population is nearly 40 million – and it is exceedingly important strategically. It straddles the line between East and West Europe –  Germany to the West; Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania to the East – with Russia not far in the distance. It has had, moreover, a history, if only rather a brief one,  of democracy. Unlike, say, Russia, which has no experience with democratic governance, Poland has. In fact, during the decades between the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) and now, Poland has been more democratic than not. Not long after the fall of the wall, democracy, and capitalism flourished in Poland, making it by most measures the single most successful country of the former Soviet bloc.

But, in recent years, it’s been straight downhill. Rightist, some would say fascist governments have prevailed in Poland,  and though there have been predictable protests, large ones, in fact, they have, so far at least, failed to stop populists and nationalists from having their way with their country.

This week things came to a head. Poland’s rightist government brazenly ordered a sweeping purge of the country’s Supreme Court. In response, many members of the judiciary said, in effect, “no, no, we won’t go,” while people without power took to the streets to protest people with.

Poland’s judicial system is in total turmoil. Still, it’s not clear which way the country will go. What is clear is that Poland’s problem is Europe’s problem. If Poland quits democracy, as recently have several smaller European states, such as Hungary, several things will die on the vine. Much the most prominent among them, much the most important among them, is the European dream – the idea that out of the bloodlands of World War II could grow a continent with a measure of unity and a measure of security. It seems obvious to me that if the first, unity, turns to dust, so, inevitably, will the second, security.