Following Followers

Yesterday was one of those days. Impossible to follow the news without being reminded of just how much the world has changed, even in the last ten years. It’s not that leaders have become less important. It’s that followers have become more important. Important to the point where focusing on leadership to the exclusion of followership is to focus wrong.

  • The previously promising presidential campaign of the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, has been derailed, possibly permanently. Derailed by African American residents of South Bend, furiously protesting the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer.
  • The dictatorial leader of Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suffered his most stinging defeat in years. In consequence, Erdogan has lost, at least for now, electoral control of Istanbul, by far Turkey’s most consequential city.
  • The protests in Prague were the largest in the Czech Republic since 1989. Well over 200,000 people took to the streets to demand the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Anrej Babis. Babis has long been accused of corruption and malfeasance. Signs are anger against him has reached a boiling point, a point at which sweeping change transitions from request to requirement.  

I cannot foretell the future. It’s possible that all this sound and fury will in the end among to nothing. But, it’s just as possible that Buttigieg’s heyday is over. That Erdogan’s heyday is over. And that Babis’s heyday is over.

Women and Leadership – Redux (June 2019)

Women and Leadership – Redux (June 2019)

Women and leadership – it’s one of my running themes. And why not? Among the reasons to continue the conversation:

  • While during the last couple of decades more women have secured positions of leadership, the number of women at the top remains low, very low. This applies to virtually every place on the planet.
  • While during the last couple of decades the amount of ink spilled discussing women and leadership has been, shall we say, abundant, change continues more incremental than impressive.
  • While the situation remains static and our fretting about it does the same, the heart of the matter, the beating heart of the matter, is still being sidelined.  

You forget what I wrote was the heart of the matter – the beating heart of the matter?  It’s babies. It’s that women bear babies and men do not.

Some stats:

  • In recent years American women have increased the amount of time they spend on their jobs.
  • American women who work outside the home spend an average of seven hours and 20 minutes each day on the job.  
  • American working women spend about a half-hour more each day than American men on household chores such as cleaning and cooking.
  • American working women with young children spend about two hours a day on tasks related to childrearing. American working men spend less than an hour and a half per day doing the same.  
  • In 2018 American women worked longer and played less than they did in 2017. They also slept less. *

Some facts:

  • Pregnant women who carry a baby to term reach the same peak levels of endurance as Ironman competitors.
  • Human mothers have the biggest children and the longest pregnancies of all apes.
  • Over 80 % of new mothers start out breastfeeding their children.
  • Breastfeeding is usually a positive experience for mother and child. At the same time, it makes demands on the mother, physical and psychological, that are not easily compatible with full time employment. These demands include time and energy, special attention to nutrition and caloric intake, and the need for enough rest and adequate sleep.

Those of us who still wonder why, despite the many high ambitions and the many good intentions, the number of women who lead continues to remain comparatively low have only to look at the whole truth. A truth that includes the impact on women of being solely responsible for bearing the baby and birthing the baby – and then largely responsible for raising it.  

And oh, then there is this!

In the United States today are nearly 12.6 million single parents raising over 21 million children. Of single parents only 16 percent are fathers. Which means that approximately 84% of single parents are mothers. Still wonder why so few leaders are women?   


*Theses figures are from the annual U. S. Labor Department Time Use Survey.

“Democracy in a Petrie Dish” – Hong Kong Take Two

I posted Take One of “Democracy in a Petrie Dish” on September 9, 2016. (Link below.) It was about how and why anyone with an interest in the necessary tension between autocratic leaders and democratic followers should pay close attention to the events in Hong Kong. Now, over two and a half years later, my point remains the same. Since 2014 Hong Kong has been an experiment in democracy – an experiment in whether it’s possible for Hong Kong’s relatively powerless few to bring to their knees China’s inordinately powerful many.

Since that initial post on Hong Kong the situation has changed. China has become even more stringent and less tolerant of political dissent. Moreover, its leader, Xi Jinping, has evolved from being an authoritarian to a totalitarian. At this point, he uses the Chinese Communist Party to maintain complete control over the Chinese people, while having secured for himself the constitutional right to remain leader for life.  

In consequence of this change, most experts have come to conclude that China will continue to squeeze Hong Kong to the point where its democracy is extinguished. Of course, they are likely still to be right. So far China has not been shy about exercising its muscle and so far, while the people of Hong Kong have resisted, they have not done so fiercely enough, constantly enough, and in enough numbers to stop the Chinese behemoth.

In the last couple of weeks though, things have changed. The balance of power between the people of Hong Kong and the government of China has shifted – at least slightly, at least for now. The protesters in Hong Kong have been so great in their numbers, so united in their resistance, and so passionately dedicated to their cause that at this moment they are prevailing. Their government – led by Carrie Lam, who is pro-Chinese – has backtracked, back-peddled, apologized and suspended as opposed to implemented, for now, an onerous proposed extradition law.

Since 2014 – since Hong Kong’s so-called “umbrella revolution – I have thought of it as a test case. If Hong Kong falls, from somewhat independent democracy to totally abject autocracy, the future in places such as Taiwan, and in fact in China itself, looks grim for anyone seeking to loosen the reins of government control. On the other hand, if the people of Hong Kong successfully stave off the Chinese authorities, there’s no telling the direction of totalitarianism.

This is a long game, not a short one. The importance of winning at any given moment should not be exaggerated. But it is a game of sorts – a contest of utmost consequence.   

Bad Leadership – Common Sense

Of all the conundrums confounding relations between leaders and followers, none is as daunting as bad leadership. Bad leadership traps both leaders and followers in a vise from which neither is able easily to escape.

The leader behaves badly and then, typically, behaves even more badly. His followers are stymied – sometimes divided, invariably frightened. Frightened of the consequences of doing something and frightened of the consequences of doing nothing. And so generally they opt for the latter. Being a bystander is easier than being an activist – less draining and demanding, less unsettling and unnerving.

But when bad leadership becomes worse leadership, followers must act.  If they do not, they are complicit in their own suffering. Americans have got to this point. After putting up with President Donald Trump’s rampant ignorance and outrageous malfeasance for two and a half years, time has come for every sentient citizen to put up or shut up.

Followers differ one from the other: they have different wants, needs, and wishes, and different resources and responsibilities. They are moreover situated in different contexts and they face different circumstances. Here I refer to a specific set of followers: those in the opposition and those best positioned to act against a president who has affronted our norms and violated our laws. I refer specifically to two categories of Democrats: those serving in the House of Representatives and those running for president of the United States.

In both cases women are the obvious leaders of the opposition, obvious leaders of opposing followers. First is Nancy Pelosi, who ought finally to throw caution to the wind. And second is Elizabeth Warren, who was first among Democratic candidates to call for Trump’s impeachment, and who was quick to repeat that call last night, in the wake of the president’s saying he would do again what he did before, accept information about an opponent from a foreign government. But Warren should do more than speak out. She should put out – she should take the lead in organizing at least some of her opponents in the race for the White House in order to present a united front. A united Democratic front for impeachment of the sitting Republican president.  

The United States of America was forged in the crucible of opposition to bad leadership. Opposition so fierce it culminated in a revolt against the king of England. But, to get to that point, followers needed leaders filled with fury so great it fueled them for months and more months, and finally for years. No one ever said upending bad leaders was easy. It’s not. It’s hard. Really hard. But, it’s not impossible.

Thomas Paine’s revolutionary tract, Common Sense, published in 1776, has been described as the match that lit the Revolution:

Though I would carefully avoid giving unnecessary offence, yet I am inclined to believe that all those who espouse the doctrine of reconciliation may be included within the following descriptions. Interested men, who are not to be trusted; weak men who cannot see; prejudiced men who will not see; and a certain set of moderate men who … will be the cause of more calamities to this Continent than all the other three….

According to Paine then, of all the followers of bad leaders it is moderates who do the most harm. In the current situation moderates so pusillanimous they would fail to impeach a president who, as attested to by every scintilla of evidence, deserves nothing else and no less.  

Learning to Lead? Guess not.

In the American system of higher education there is a single institution that regularly professes to teach how to lead. American Business Schools. Not every American Business School, but many and maybe even most American Business Schools. That is, many if not most American Business Schools declare that their primary mission is to train leaders, or to educate leaders, or to develop leaders.

How’s that going for them? Not so well. The number of full-time M.B.A. programs continues to dwindle. This trend is not new. But the fact that it’s been sustained without a break since at least 2014 is troubling; at least it’s troubling to deans of the nation’s business schools who are charged with, among their other tasks, keeping enrollments from dropping. As Jeffrey Brown, dean of the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois, put it: “If you were able to get every dean in the U. S. under a lie detector, outside of maybe the top 20 M.B.A, programs, every one of them would admit they were struggling to maintain enrollment and losing money on the program.”*

There are, of course, several reasons for the continuing drop in the number of full-time, two-year business school programs. They include costs, not only in money but in time; and a relatively strong job market even for those without advanced degrees; and competition from other business school programs that take only a year to complete or require no residency at all but are offered instead online.  

There is however another reason – one that pertains to their primary mission. Because of their brands, schools such as the Harvard Business School and the Stanford Graduate School of Business can still get away with saying that their mission is to “educate leaders who make a difference in the world” (Harvard) or to “develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world” (Stanford).  However, a school such as the one led by Dean Brown does not have the advantage of brand: by every measure the University of Illinois is less prestigious an institution than either Harvard or Stanford. So, bowing to the marketplace Geis is being forced to shrink beyond recognition. After this year’s incoming class completes its studies, the school will no longer offer either full-time or even part time M.B.A. degrees. The only such degrees it will offer will be online.  

In all the ink that’s been spilled on why traditional M.B.A. programs are biting the dust in such significant numbers, one reason is never given. It is that most, if not all, of these schools fail to fulfill their primary mission. Harvard and Stanford can still get away with claiming, respectively, that they educate leaders and develop leaders. Their brands remain that strong. But a school such as Geis could not. Here is Geis’s mission statement: “We prepare and empower exceptional, innovative, purposeful and ethical business leaders through knowledge creation and immersive learning experiences.” Seems to me self-evident that had Geis been able somehow to prove it really did “prepare and empower” exceptional leaders it would still be in business. But the fact that it, like nearly all such schools, could not, consigned its traditional graduate programs to the ash heap of history.


*Quoted in Kelsey Gee, “Full-Time M.B.A. Programs Dwindle,” Wall Street Journal, June 6, 2019.

Leaders Living Lavishly

We’ve heard the moaning and groaning about income inequality for years. Yet the American disposition to pay leaders obscenely well while paying everyone else obscenely less well continues apace.

CEOs are the most obvious beneficiaries of this obnoxiously skewed system. In the last year the average wage of American workers finally grew, by 4 percent to an average annual income of $47,000. (All figures are rounded.) But, the average wage of their bosses (of S&P 500 companies) also grew, by 7 percent to a median income of more than $12 million. This despite executive performances overall that were disappointing.* This despite multiple efforts to rein in executive pay. This despite having the wind anyway at executive backs – in 2018 a strong economy, a favorable tax cut, and a large increase in stock buybacks that lifted share prices.

There’s no logic to any of this. Rich leaders are getting inordinately richer not because they deserve to. Or because they perform tricks that no one else can. Or because they are indispensable to successful corporate performance while everyone else is dispensable.  

Rather rich leaders are getting inordinately richer first because of a herd mentality – the idea that leaders are all-important has become deeply entrenched in America’s collective consciousness. And second because executive compensation is a train that’s left the station – and no one’s been able to stop it. In 2018, Robert Iger, the exceedingly capable CEO of Disney, earned about $140 million. Abigail Disney, niece of one of the founders, publicly objected to the size of Iger’s compensation package not because she thought him less than excellent. To the contrary, she made a point of saying, “he deserves a lot of money.” Rather she objected because his earnings were already outsized, “How far,” she asked, “are we going to go?

Among the leaders most lavishly compensated, many if not most give back. At the highest level is the Giving Pledge, which urges the nation’s wealthiest individuals to donate at least half their assets to charitable or otherwise good causes. At lesser levels are countless other philanthropies, all of them intended to redistribute wealth or at least some of the benefits that money can buy.   

Still, invariably, Big Money is controlled by the few not the many. Which raises this question: Why do executives accept the extravagant sums of money their boards are willing to pay? Why don’t they just say no? Why don’t they just tell it like it is – which is that no single individual deserves to earn so exponentially much more money than does virtually everyone else.

Anyone ever heard the term role model? Anyone ever heard the idea that a leader should be a role model? Anyone ever heard of history? Anyone ever heard what history teaches? Which is that a leadership class that gets too big for its britches will one day or another, one way or another be taken down a notch. Or two.

Just yesterday Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist, created pandemonium in a restaurant in Queens when she made an appearance to support tipped workers. Why did she feel the need? Because the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 an hour.  


* Median shareholder returns for these companies was minus 6 percent, “the worst showing,” the Wall Street Journal reports, “since the financial crisis.”)

The Leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel

About two months ago, I was asked by a university in Germany to write a document about the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Today I am posting the document as a blog because just a few hours ago Chancellor Merkel was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree by my own University, Harvard.    


As I have written elsewhere, leadership is not a person. Leadership is a system comprised of three parts, each of which is of equal importance. The first is the leader. The second are the followers – others that leaders that must bring along in order to be effective, especially to create change. And the third are the contexts, the multiple contexts within which leaders and followers are situated.

This document then will address Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership in three different contexts. This is not to claim that these are the only domains in which her leadership was in evidence. Rather it is to suggest that her place in history will be determined by her leadership in Germany; her leadership in Europe; and, inevitably, her leadership as a woman in a world in which the number of women at the top remains still strikingly low.

Angela Merkel – Leadership in Germany  

Years before the chaos and confusion sowed by the persona and presidency of Donald Trump, and years before the dissention and disruption triggered by Britain’s decision to quit the European Union, observers remarked about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preternatural calm. No matter the circumstance or situation, her hand on the tiller was steady, and her presentation of self, devoid of all theatrics, a physical manifestation of her political positions.

Style – leadership style – matters. It matters especially when the leader’s style mirrors the leader’s substance. In this case, the fit was perfect: Merkel’s personality and her politics intersected, they matched. Though there was at least one major exception, about which more below, if there has been a defining characteristic of Merkel’s chancellorship it is seriousness. This was a serious leader who led her country with seriousness of purpose.  Moreover, there has been no distraction. Chancellor Merkel has been able steadfastly to maintain what Hillary Clinton once referred to as a “zone of privacy.” Merkel herself is unfailingly contained if not constrained. Additionally, her family and friends, and her staff, completely eschew publicity. In consequence, Merkel has remained on a personal level enigmatic, which, in turn, has enabled her followers, broadly the German people, to focus on the work. To focus on Germany’s domestic policies/politics. And on its foreign policies/politics. And on their chancellor’s capacity first to chart and then to follow the course that collectively was set.

The barest statistics speak for themselves. Angela Merkel was leader of the Christian Democratic Union for some eighteen years, and at the end of her current term as chancellor she will have been leader of Germany for some sixteen years. Given the challenges that all liberal democracies now face, many of them unimaginable a generation ago, Merkel’s longevity as a leader is itself an accomplishment. Much was made of the fact that by 2018 her approval ratings were dropping. But the real story is not that after well over a decade in office Germans were tiring of a leader who had become overly familiar; the real story was that she had appealed to them for so long, That for so long they had trusted their chancellor personally, professionally, and politically.

Though you cannot be chancellor for any length of time without navigating some choppy waters, it is also the case that for roughly the first decade of Merkel’s chancellorship Germany was a country largely content and nearly quiescent. Merkel and the German people rather reflected each other: both seeming to feel competent and confident, both seeming to revel in the peace and prosperity that was their achievement.

This famously came to something of an abrupt stop in 2015, when virtually single-handedly Chancellor Merkel decided to admit into Germany approximately one million immigrants, mainly from the war-torn Middle East. Germans’ response, initially, albeit briefly, was almost euphoric. Press coverage of “good” Germans apparently authentically welcoming very large numbers of very miserable migrants was heartwarming. However, we now know that not long after was a backlash that led in short order to a new political party, Alternative for Germany, that was unsettlingly right-wing, including being anti-Islam and anti-immigrant.   

Immigration has become a dismally divisive issue world-wide – no reason to exempt Germans from the contentiousness that now almost invariably complicates the problem. Suffice to say here that whatever the views on Merkel’s dramatic decision, or the opinion on why she reached it, it was a disruptive departure. It was a personal and political departure from the leadership she had evidenced up to then.

Perhaps paradoxically, though perhaps not, this late-career deviation from what had been Merkel’s life-long pattern of caution is almost certain to burnish her legacy as a leader. I write this not so much because I am predicting an easy trajectory or even a happy end. Indeed, in recent years every one of Merkel’s positions on immigration has hardened. Clearly, she has come to understand that this is not, alas, simply a matter of extending a helping hand.  That there are consequences to attempting to integrate large numbers of outsiders into a country and culture historically comprised of insiders. Still, had Chancellor Merkel not taken this step, made a move that deviated so sharply both from her style and substance, she would have been much less interesting a leader, and less great.

There are reasons that history will treat her kindly. That history will recognize her as someone who has done more to shape Germany than any other postwar leader with the exceptions of Konrad Adenauer and, arguably, Willy Brandt. These reasons include the capacity to rise to the occasion – especially when what’s involved is an element of surprise. For the capacity to surprise – recall Nixon’s overture to China, or Begin’s accord with Sadat – is one of the most underrated of all leadership attributes.

Angela Merkel – Leadership in Europe

From the vantage point of this moment, mid-2019, the role of Angela Merkel in the European experiment has been reduced. Some of the reasons for the reduction are, relatively, objective: they seem to have little or no connection to the longtime chancellor. These include first, the emergence in Europe and in the United States of a new band of nationalist, populist leaders with whom Merkel has little in common, either ideologically or temperamentally. These include second, Brexit, which has effectively eliminated Britain as a practical, pragmatic, partner. These include third, followers, noisy, participatory citizens everywhere in Europe, for example, in France, the Yellow Vests, whose prolonged protests impaired the Euro-centric leadership of Emmanuel Macron. Finally, the reasons for Merkel’s reduced role in Europe include the weakening of the multilateral, supranational organizations that for decades have undergirded the continent, most obviously NATO and the EU.

But, when we analyze leadership, we analyze a system in which everything is connected to everything else. Therefore, the explanations provided above, which appear, on the surface, to be more objective than subjective, that is, relatively unrelated to the German chancellor, are in fact not, or, at least, not entirely. They are, to some indeterminate degree, also subjective. That is, they also relate certainly in some ways to who Angela Merkel is and to what she believes, as they do also to Germany, its past and its present, and to the German people, who for the last three quarters of a century have generally preferred to stay out of the fray, not to embroil themselves in it.  

This is not the place for judgement; rather it is for assessment. Let it simply be said then that for better and worse Angela Merkel’s leadership style – her generally cautious and conservative choices, and her Germany-first preferences – have had consequences. There are two junctures at which these were most obviously in evidence. The first was the European debt crisis, during which her insistence on austerity had a significant negative impact, especially on countries along the southern tier, Greece perhaps the most prominent. Circa 2012 criticisms of Merkel in many circles were loud and unrelenting, especially the charge that she was prioritizing German interests, manipulating markets and banks and European institutions to protect Germany’s place in the firmament, literally and figuratively.

Clear conclusions about the impact of Merkel’s interventions, or lack thereof, will never be conclusively drawn. Some still argue that had Merkel been more flexible, recovery in Greece for instance, would have been faster and stronger. Others still argue the contrary – that Merkel’s fiscal conservatism saved the European currency. Still, no less close or astute an observer of Europe than Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash has concluded that the crisis presented an opportunity that Merkel missed. Her absence of vision in that moment is, in his judgement, “the biggest minus on her record.”[1]

The second charge against Merkel as a leader is, tellingly, similar in nature: it relates to the tension between caution on the one hand and vision on the other. A German leader who was bolder than Merkel, more inclined to lean in and less inclined to hold back, might have seen Trump’s desire to weaken NATO, even to fracture it, as another opportunity to be taken rather than foresworn. Instead of doubling down on Germany’s past reticence, Merkel could have gone in a different direction. She could have seized the day, tried to bring the German people to the point where they would have joined her in seeing the virtues not just of shoring up the venerable Atlantic alliance, but of expanding Germany’s role in undertaking the task.

Germany has gotten accustomed to depending on NATO, a multilateral organization underpinned by multilateral aspirations. But under Chancellor Merkel Germany has not only not led, it has withheld. Current German spending on defense as a percentage of its gross domestic product is 1.2 percent. The NATO target is 2 percent.  For this gap there is no obvious fiscal reason – which means there is a political reason. Merkel made the decision, the calculation, that it was not worth the political risk, to her, of taking Germany in a new and different direction. She would stick to the pattern of the past, one in which her primary task was to keep Germany stable and strong – and the rest, including keeping the continent stable and strong, would, it was presumed, follow.

Which returns us to Merkel’s strength as a leader. Likely no single source of her power, authority, and influence stands out as much as the degree to which she has, consciously or unconsciously, embodied the German people. Germans have not clamored for a larger role in NATO, or for that matter in the European Union. Nor did they exactly insist on helping the Greeks in their moment of need. Rather Germans have generally been content with the many blessings bestowed on them by the status quo: a remarkably stable democracy, a generally thriving economy, and a strong social fabric that largely protects them from the frustrations and agitations bedeviling many if not most of their European counterparts,

Angela Merkel – a Woman Leader in a Man’s World

“Mutti” was what Angela Merkel was sometimes called. (The word means “Mom” or “Mommy.”) Now, not so much. Now “Mutti” has receded in favor of the recognition that probably it’s inappropriate to pin it to a woman who has been called the most powerful in the world, and certainly it’s misguided. In fact, Merkel has never had a child. Nor are Germans, the German people, her children. Many or most have been her followers, her constituents, her supporters to the point of voting for her for chancellor for no fewer than four consecutive four-year terms. Merkel even beats out that other formidable female leader, another modern European, Margaret Thatcher, who served as prime minster of the United Kingdom for eleven years.   

But to understand Merkel’s singular status as a woman whose tenure in Germany’s highest elective office has been characterized by, among other things, extraordinary longevity, better to set her in a larger, global context. For example, the United States has never had a single American president who was other than a man. Or, currently there are some 195 countries in the world – less than 13% have a woman at the helm. Or, assuming Merkel concludes her current term in 2021, she will rival if not beat the record of the handful of other women who have similarly served for so long, such as Indira Gandhi. (Gandhi was prime minister of India from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984.) Or, of the current Fortune 500 chief executive officers, less than 5 percent are women. Or, black women govern only 4 percent of America’s largest cities. Or, women constitute only about 30 percent of members of the German Bundestag. Or, women constitute only about 23 percent of the U.S. Congress.

One could of course go on – but the point is made. The number of women at the top is still exceedingly low: no matter public sector or private one; no matter region or religion; no matter 1999 or 2019. To be sure, in general the numbers are inching up. But that’s precisely the point. They are inching up; they are not climbing up. For various reasons the so-called pipeline – which implied that women down below would make their way up in a reasonable span of time – has been largely illusory.

Given the multiple manifestations of women’s movements; and given the recent realizations that diversity is an attribute; and given that women themselves profess to want to rise to the top; why equality at the top remains still so elusive is not completely clear. (I have argued that childbearing along with childrearing weighs more heavily on the problem than generally is appreciated.) Whatever the explanations, a woman in high office is a nut Merkel has cracked. She has found a way – a way for a woman to lead without seeming to be too feminine, too caring and communal; and without seeming to be too masculine, aggressive and proactive. Interestingly, it’s a delicate balance, difficult for a woman to strike. What’s required is splitting the difference. To state it more baldly, “successful female leaders generally find a middle way that is neither unacceptably masculine nor unacceptably feminine.” [2]


As this document suggests, as a leader Angela Merkel has been imperfect. She has not walked on water. But, as this document further suggests, she has been among the most admirable and accomplished leaders in German history, not just postwar German history, German history period, European history period. Setting aside the specifics of her accomplishments, these two are overarching. First, when she is done with her leadership work, she will leave Germany a strong liberal democracy, this during a time when illiberal forces threaten from all sides. Second, when she is done with her leadership work, she will leave Germany testimony to taking responsibility, this during a time when evading responsibility is every day more in evidence. For her steadiness, steadfastness, and strength, and for her sensibility and sensitivity, Chancellor Angela Merkel merits the Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree that was bestowed on her today by Harvard University.


[1] Quoted in Katrin Bennhold, “’Already an Exception’ Merkel’s Legacy is Shaped by Migration and Austerity,” The New York Times, December 5, 2018.

[2] Alice Eagly and Linda Carli quoted in Barbara Kellerman. “Leading Androgynously” in Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard, 2013. t 4;

Parasitic Leadership

The word “leadership” is hard to define. It has hundreds of different definitions. But, the word “parasitic” is not hard to define. When a person is parasitic, he or she lives off another, depends on another for simple sustenance. This explains why persons who are parasite-like are so hard to get rid of. They benefit from feeding off people who support them; they benefit from having to bestow in exchange nothing of value.

It also explains why synonyms for parasite are words such as “leech” and “bloodsucker.” Parasites take what they can – no thought given to returning the favor. And once they sink their teeth in, they are, for good and obvious reasons, difficult, sometimes even impossible, to extract. For the purpose of this discussion, then, I define parasitic leadership as exercised by a person in a position of authority who feeds off of his or her followers without giving much if anything in exchange. Parasitic leadership is, moreover, clingy. It clings to the source of its authority – sometimes to the point of strangling it.

Parasitic leaders are remarkable to behold. Most striking is their capacity to hang on and dig in even after most of their hosts – their followers – recognize that they are malign. Followers of parasitic leaders typically find that they are stuck. They are stuck with leaders who refuse to give up, to let go, to allow themselves to be pulled out or peeled off even after it becomes blindingly obvious that they are widely disliked and distrusted. Even after it becomes blindingly obvious that many if not most can no longer stomach them. Even after it becomes blindingly obvious that they are miserably ineffective, or wretchedly unethical, or maybe both.

Left to their own devices, parasitic leaders feed off their followers –sucking them dry to the point of rendering them helpless. Which is why attention must be paid. Unless followers of parasitic leaders muster the moxie fiercely to resist them, they will be done in. Parasitical leaders are completely dependent on followers for life support. Without sufficient numbers of faithful followers parasitic leaders will wither and disappear. But, with sufficient numbers of feckless followers parasitic leaders will hold tight and remain in place till their dying day.     

Followers in Germany

Followership in Germany has been more closely studied than in any other country or culture. This applies especially during the decades after World War II, during which several eminent social scientists focused not just on Hitler, but on the numberless Germans who were his followers. Hitler’s followers included his slavish disciples and his most ardent acolytes. They also included ordinary Germans – here called Bystanders. Bystander Germans did not aggressively support the Nazi regime – though many voted for the Nazi party – but nor did they aggressively oppose it. By and large they simply went along, no matter that by the 1940s public policy had become genocidal.

That though was then. By virtually every accounting, by the 1960s the German people had undergone a transformation. Their national character had changed, different after the war than it was before the war. Among the various changes was a strong proclivity to pacifism – to the point where, even now, every time one or another politician (domestic or foreign) proposes an increase in Germany’s defense spending, the objections are as loud as they are clear.

Understandably, for the last 75 years, nearly all studies of followership in Germany have focused on Germans as political actors. After all, their willingness, in some cases their eagerness, to follow their leader, Hitler, during the 1930s and well into the 1940s had calamitous political consequences, worldwide. Moreover, as they relate to the private sector, followers everywhere have tended to be relatively quiescent. For example, during most of American history, corporate leaders led while the rest of us followed. We too, though generally more boisterous than Germans, tended to be Bystanders, with growing shareholder activism only a relatively recent phenomenon.

The more surprising, then, to discover that in the last few years some German people have prominently, and aggressively, taken on some German businesses.  There are several reasons for this, most screamingly obvious among them is that some of the largest and best known among German companies have been miserably badly led – to the point where they became not just embarrassments at home, but also abroad.

For American audiences among the most prominent of these is Volkswagen, which has yet to recover from the admissions scandal of a few years ago that cost the company tens of billions of dollars, in addition to its previously reliably good name. (The CEO who presided over Volkswagen’s deception, Martin Winterkorn, has since been indicted for fraud and conspiracy in the U.S., and for fraud in Germany.) Another German corporate behemoth that recently became something of a household name is Deutsche Bank, whose many years of financial hanky-panky with one Donald J. Trump have, at a minimum, turned into a public relations disaster. (Deutsche Bank was willing to deal with Trump long after virtually every other major financial institution was done doing business with a man they long since had pegged as a shyster.) Other German corporations are facing similar scrutiny, such as Bayer, whose share price in the last nine months dropped an eye-popping 37 %. (In 2016, Bayer, possibly to its everlasting regret, swallowed up Monsanto. It has been said that this single gulp accounts for the drop in Bayer’s share price.)

Who exactly is casting a wary eye? Followers. German followers. Germans who previously exercised no power or influence, but who in the last few years decided to flex some newly developed muscles. Who more precisely are they? They range from recently emboldened corporate (supervisory) boards, to recently emboldened shareholder activists, to recently emboldened ordinary shareholders who are finding their voice in unprecedent ways. At Bayer’s annual meeting last month CEO Werner Baumann had to put up with “dozens of tirades” directed against him, not to speak of the first ever vote of no confidence against the management team of a Dax-listed company.*

What is happening now in Germany is not dramatically different from what is happening in the United States. Just like followers in the public sector, followers in the private sector are becoming notably more involved, perceptibly more assertive. But, the fact that followers in Germany specifically are so obviously different in the present from what they were in the past, testifies to how followers everywhere are changing the rules of the game. Worldwide the consequences of these changes are far-reaching and wide-ranging – from very, very good to very, very bad.


Guy Chazan, “Investors Take on Germany Inc,” Financial Times, May 8, 2019.

Women and Leadership – Redux

As of May 1st, every poll had men leading the list of Democratic contenders. Not only were Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in the lead, they were in the lead by a lot. To say the obvious, this can and will change. But as of this writing, the odds are against a woman at the top of either the Republican or Democratic 2020 presidential ticket.

As always, the question is why. Why given the strong slate of Democratic women (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand), every one of whom has won every election in which she ran, do they still lag after men?

The answers of course are complex, and they are various. So, I will not here attempt to address the question in full. Still, I will seize the occasion to review recent research on women in the American workplace and use it to reiterate how knotty the problem.

  • The most educated women still face the biggest gender gaps in both status and pay.
  • Women still comprise less than 5 % of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
  • Women still comprise less than 25 % of the U.S. Congress.
  • Women still comprise just one quarter of the top 10 % of U. S. earners.
  • The returns to working long, inflexible hours have significantly increased.
  • Assuming two parents with young children, generally only one takes the very demanding job – the father not the mother.
  • Technology has made professions greedier for people who put in exceedingly long hours.
  • People who work 50 hours or more a week earn up to 8 percent more per hour than those who work from 35 to 49 hours.
  • More women (80%) with advanced degrees have children than was the case 20 years ago (65%) – hence more women are affected by whatever the gender imbalances.
  • MenCare estimates it will take another 75 years for men worldwide to do half the unpaid work that domesticity requires.
  • Only 17 percent of mothers with children three years or younger say they prefer to work full time.*

To summarize: First, American women still lag far behind American men, especially in the most visible and important leadership roles. Second, the reasons for this relate more to the exceedingly demanding nature of work, especially professional work, in the 21st century than they do to anything else. Third, the exceedingly demanding nature of work most directly affects women with young children. Fourth, the work-related differences between men and women seem not only to be imposed from the outside; some seem to emanate from the inside, from women who want to remain close to their children, especially when they are young. Fifth, while all the fixes still focus on the workplace, women will continue to be women. Specifically, they will continue to be the parent who is pregnant, and who, after the baby is born, can if she wants breast feed the baby. Sixth, until the intersection between the nature of the workplace and the nature of women (and men) is addressed, so long will the conundrum of women and leadership persist.    

Postscript: Elizabeth Warren has two adult children. Kamala Harris has two children, both born to her husband and his prior wife. (Harris has not had a child of her own.)  Klobuchar has one adult child. Gillibrand his two teenaged children.

  • Note: For an excellent article on greedy work and its impact on women particularly, see Claire Cain Miller, “Women Did Everything Right. Then Work Got ‘Greedy’” in New York Times, April 28, 2019.