Focus on Followers – Hallelujah!

In the leadership literature the term “managing up” is reasonably common. But how subordinates should manage their superiors – particularly in the workplace – nevertheless gets short shrift. Which is curious, because the problem confronts people at every level. Low level employees fret about how they and their bosses relate – as do mid-level employees and indeed upper level ones. Still, we are so fixated on problems facing leaders that problems facing followers are largely ignored.

A welcome exception to this general rule is a recent article by Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal titled “The Right and Wrong Ways to Manage Up.”* The article points out that the number of dollars spent on leadership training for mid-level managers has decreased, while the number of dollars spent on leadership training for senior level managers has increased This leaves most mid-level managers especially without much education or training of any kind – including lessons on how to manage those more highly positioned than they.

There is nothing in Shellenbarger’s article that leads you to believe that any of what constitutes how to manage up is rocket science. To the contrary. Most of the advice is no more than simple common sense. Still, some of the nuggets on how to communicate with, how to engage, those more highly positioned than you, will be useful to some of the people some of the time. At a minimum they focus attention on those in the middle who tend not to benefit one whit from the big bucks big business invests in the leadership industry.




Leadership – The Generation Gap

In The End of Leadership, which was published in 2012, I wrote about what evidently was becoming a leadership gap. A technology gap between older leaders and younger leaders – and, more importantly, younger followers. I noted that few CEOs were cutting edge, were “using social media to engage with others in their companies, to share information and ideas from their companies’ perspectives, and to empower their work force to communicate on behalf of the organization.” I further quoted an expert who remarked that leaders were “wasting the opportunity to lead and manage in cyberspace.”

During the last six years the gap in technology savvy between older leaders and younger ones has become seismic. To wit: the evidence of earlier this week – during Mark Zuckerberg’s two-day testimony before Congress. This is not to fault members of Congress. They are who they are, politicians, usually of a certain age, up against a man who likely is decades younger, and who arguably is social media’s greatest innovator.

It turned out no context.

  • Zuckerberg emerged from the proceedings unscathed by lawmakers purportedly assembled to rake him over the coals.
  • Zuckerberg was master of the technology – and master of the chamber. He was as consistently respectful and appropriately deferential as deeply informed.
  • Zuckerberg did more explaining Facebook than defending Facebook.
  • Zuckerberg demonstrated that technological illiteracy is major problem for many if not most senior leaders. Most senior leaders cannot possibly address their illiteracy on their own. They must depend on, generally, younger followers.
  • Zuckerberg would do well to cooperate and collaborate with Congress. Most of the very members he once regarded as enemy aliens would be willing to work with him and his kind to regulate business behemoths such as his. Ironically, these selfsame lawmakers will need him to help them regulate him.


Being a Mother, Being a Leader – Connection Confirmed

Each month there’s new evidence that the difference in professional trajectories between men and women is on account of the “ten-year baby window.” Immediately after the first birth, the pay gap between spouses doubles. This applies especially to women who have their first child between the ages of 25 and 35. In other words, women who have their first child either before age 25, or only after age 35, are more likely eventually to close the pay gap – and, we may assume, the leadership gap – with their husbands.

This of course raises the question of why. Why are women more likely than men to suffer the consequences of having a child during an all-important professional decade? The answer of course is time – time spent on the job versus time spent on child care.  As Claire Cain Miller writes in the New York Times, children require a lot of time, particularly young children, and mothers spend “disproportionately more time than fathers on child care and related responsibilities…. Women are more likely to reduce their work hours, take time off, turn down a promotion, or quit their jobs to care for families. Even in in families in which both parents work full time., women spend almost double the time on housework and child care.”*

Which again raises the question of why. Why do women agree to do this, to make this professional sacrifice? Or is it possible that many women, maybe even the majority, actually want to do this – want to work less outside the home and more inside the home when their children are young?!

To answer these questions, I refer you to my previous blogs on this topic that insist that biology is key. Humans are animals – mammals. Male mammals parent differently from female mammals. Period. Full stop.

This is not to argue that biology is destiny. It is to argue that biology matters.


*Claire Cain Miller, “10-Year Baby Window is Key to Women’s Pay Gap.”

Biography is Destiny

In my recent book, Professionalizing Leadership, I argue that to be considered an earnest endeavor, leadership learning must encompass 1) education 2) training; and 3) development. Which raises the question of what should each of these three consist of?

In pondering the stuff of a good leadership education, I am struck by how biography has come to seem quaint.  For eons leaders were told to learn to lead by studying the lives of great leaders – even if they were flawed. The lives of great men – to wit, Plutarch’s Lives – were presumed pedagogical tools, instructing by illustrating how not to be ordinary but to be extraordinary, especially by getting others, in some cases by whatever means necessary, to follow your lead.

Now, though, such instruction seems dated, old-fashioned. While there are some exceptions – the life of Ernest Shackleton continues to be an exemplar – generally biographies are missing from leadership curricula. Our loss, for they remain a wonderful way of modeling behavior to be emulated or, for that matter, to be scorned. A great biography brings great gratification. A great biography is great art. And a great biography can be a great pedagogical implement.

If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe Machiavelli. Here is what he wrote in his classic manual on how to lead, The Prince:

As regards the exercise of the mind, the prince should … study the actions of eminent men, observe how they bore themselves in war, and examine the causes of their victories and defeats, so that he may imitate the former and avoid the latter. But above all he should follow the example of whatever distinguished man he may have chosen for his model, assuming that someone has been specially praised and held up to him as glorious. Whose actions and exploits he should ever bear in mind….

A wise prince should never be idle in times of peace but should industriously lay up stores of which to avail himself in times of adversity; so that, when Fortune abandons him, he may be prepared to resist her blows.   


Professionalizing Leadership – the Expertise of Experience

I’ve just published an entire book – Professionalizing Leadership – on how badly we treat leadership. On how we treat it as a game for amateurs. On how we treat it as something that can be learned on the fly. On how we treat it as an occupation – not as a profession.

We elect to the White House a man with zero government experience, zero political experience, and zero military experience. We take seriously as a candidate for New York governor a smart and well-intentioned actress, Cynthia Nixon, who however lacks all familiarity with what it takes to govern. And when Oprah Winfrey delivers an inspiring speech at an awards ceremony, we immediately start to flutter about, touting her for high political office.

This miserable treatment of leadership as a task for which neither experience or expertise is required is evident again in President Trump’s appointment of Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. By all accounts Jackson is a good man and a good doctor. What he is not is an individual with extensive experience running an organization of any size, not to speak of one of the largest bureaucracies in the world. Jackson has, in other words, been given a task for which he is woefully ill-prepared.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is notoriously troubled. In other words, none of its recent executives has proven skilled in improving its services to its constituents.  So, for all I know, Jackson will defy my prediction. Maybe he will succeed where his immediate predecessors have failed. I certainly hope so. Still, there is something about appointing a leader who is a novice to a position of extreme importance that is, of itself, an insult. An insult to the exercise of leadership which should require in each and every circumstance rigorous education and training in preparation for the task at hand.


What Constitutes a Good Management Education?

The words “management” and “leadership” remain conflated, as they have been for at least forty years, when “leadership” entered the “management” lexicon. Once upon a time learning how to run a group or an organization was to learn how to manage. In fact, at their inception, in the second half of the 19th century, business schools were intended to foster a shift from teaching management by apprenticeship to teaching management in the academy. It was only when this original model was acknowledged to have failed, at the end of the 20th century, that the word “leadership” became commonplace.

For all practical purposes there are no leadership schools at the graduate level – the closest thing we have are business schools. Of course, business schools teach subjects other than leadership. But, as their mission statements testify, leadership is at the heart of what they profess to instruct. For example, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University declares its mission is “to develop innovative, principled, and insightful leaders who change the world.” Because Stanford’s mission is typical rather than atypical – leadership is what most business schools are about – what constitutes a business education is, or it should be, important to those who care about the exercise of good leadership.

The recent trend in business education is to reject traditional two-year MBA programs in favor of others that are shorter and cheaper. This is not to suggest that MBA programs are threatened with elimination or even going out of fashion. In fact, advocates such as the dean of the Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria, reiterate at every turn the virtues of the two-year business degree. But, no question that traditional MBA programs are being impinged on, especially by programs opting to offer Masters in Management degrees (MiM), which generally are earned in a single year.

Cutting graduate management education in half, from one year to two, is obviously controversial. But it’s an idea, a strategy, whose time has come. The shorter course of study is attractive to many who conclude that the longer course of study is just not worth double the time or money.

Inevitably this raises the question of what constitutes a good leadership education? I address this issue at length in my recent book, Professionalizing Leadership. What I’ll say here is that any curriculum that can too easily be chopped in half is suspect.

Followership – A Case in Point

We remain a tiny minority. We – those of us in the leadership industry who believe that followership is every bit as important as leadership and that, in fact, leadership cannot be understood apart from followership, or leaders from followers – remain at the margin of the field. People want to learn how to lead, not how to follow. Therefore, by and large those of us in the leadership industry give them what they want – we sell what our customers are willing to buy.

But, in the real world, it is followers not leaders who sometimes – not always, but sometimes – frame the discussion. It goes nearly without saying that Saturday’s March for our Lives event in Washington DC, and those hundreds of satellite events scheduled to take place simultaneously, all of them essentially student-led efforts to end gun violence, are cases in point.

The words “follower” and “followership” are still burdened by the mistaken conception that followers are sheep and that followership is far less important than leadership. But to look at the literature on followership – stunningly small as it is – – is to understand that followers are simply others than leaders. They are those, such as high school students, who are without power, without authority, and without influence.

Obviously, not all followers create change. But sometimes they do. Sometimes the ostensibly powerless have the capacity to tap into changing cultures and, now, new technologies to seize the day. As has happened in this case. As has happened to these followers who, in consequence of their own up close and personal experience with gun violence, changed the conversation.

Does this mean that these students, initially certainly all from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, have been transformed from followers into leaders? Arguably yes. But to focus on semantics is to miss the point. The point is that these young people, without any obvious resources, were able to do what their putative leaders were not. On issues surrounding gun violence, they have rallied the American people in keeping with nothing less than their own expressed preferences.

Lean In, Sheryl! Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is!

Since 2013, when she came out with her mega-hit book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg has been something of a “feminist” icon. Though many took issue with the degree to which she put the onus on women to be more assertive, especially though not exclusively in the workplace, for five years she has been the most prominent among women leaders nudging others to become prominent women leaders.

At the same time, she has been, of course, chief operating officer of Facebook. It’s a position she has held since 2008. Moreover, since 2012 she has been a member of Facebook’s Board of Directors. Therefore, she, as much as anyone else at Facebook, save its founder and chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, can take credit for the company’s stunning, singular success, and must now take blame for the company’s stunning, singular stumbling. Let’s face it – Facebook’s facing a scandal that could turn out similarly. As stunning as singular.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, it’s time for Sandberg to step out and step up. Zuckerberg is obviously her superior. But given her strong advocacy, her relentless urging of women to lean in, Sandberg must not stand silently by, remaining publicly mute while her man takes the flack. No way she can continue to present pure as the driven snow while he is tarred and feathered. In short Sheryl, speak your piece or hold your peace.


Being a Mother, Being a Leader – the Motherhood Penalty

The effects of being a mother on being a leader are becoming evident to the point of indisputable. For a year now, I’ve made two points. First, that for various reasons being a mother and being a leader are difficult to reconcile, especially mothers of young children. Second, that some of the differences between mothers and fathers are deeply rooted not only in sociology, but in biology. That is, mothers carry babies for nine months before they are born, and after babies are born it is mothers not fathers who have the innate capacity to ensure their survival.

Two recent studies further support the hypothesis that innate, biological, differences between the genders impact workplace trajectories, and that these differences negatively affect women, but not men. The first is that previously mentioned (see my post of 2/15) analysis of what happens to women in family-friendly Scandinavia. For all the public policies that encourage gender neutral child rearing in Sweden, women do more of it, men do less of it. While the reasons for this difference do not emerge from this latest study, it’s not much of a leap to suppose that breast-feeding alone accounts for some of it. It is only after the first child arrives that the gap in pay in Sweden becomes considerable, with women over the long term earning 20 percent less than men.

That is, women who are mothers. Women who are not mothers are not similarly disadvantaged. Not surprisingly, the motherhood penalty persists throughout women’s professional lives. Female executives in Sweden are half as likely to be chief executives as men. And they are one third less likely to be high earners, almost certainly because they work fewer hours, take longer breaks away from work altogether, and are more likely to move into family-friendly but lower paying jobs.

Another Swedish study had a different focus, but with similar results, results that suggested that biological differences between men and women disadvantage women not only professionally, but personally. Turns out that winning an election increases subsequent divorce rates for women, but not for men. Similarly, females who become chief executives divorce at a higher rate than their male counterparts.

The hypothesis that innate reasons play a part in explaining why women who top men are penalized for it, seems additionally to be supported earlier in life. When single women, including young single women, know that they are being watched by men, they tend to downplay their ambition for money and power. They know, or they think they know, intuitively if not intellectually, that they will be less attractive to men if they appear too ambitious.

No wonder the number of women in top leadership roles remains stubbornly low –  the world over. I am not arguing that the obstacles to gender equity are impossible to surmount. I am arguing that acknowledging the role of biology as well as sociology is necessary to taking on the challenge. No matter how inconvenient the truth.


“How To Be a First-Rate Subordionate”

Nothing against Isabel Berwick, who recently wrote a column so titled for the Financial Times. Credit where credit is due: at least she focused on subordinates, as opposed to fixating like everyone else, on superiors.

But her advice, as it were, was so puny and pathetic, her piece turned out an unwitting reminder of how fallow the field of followership. She had just two suggestions.  First, subordinates should deliberately be selfish. Since they have no major managerial responsibilities, they should use their freedom to pursue their passions. Second, subordinates should manage up, not by being toadying, but by being forthright. They should, in other words, recognize that “they have a part in making relationships work.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that – with either of these two bits of suggestions. Rather it’s that how to be a “first-rate subordinate” is far richer and deeper, more complex an issue than Berwick suggests. Whatever her good intention, her column does little more than point to the yawning gap between our understanding of leadership and our understanding of followership.