The Leadership Industry – Fiddling While Rome Burns

If the Leadership Industry has a purpose, it is, ostensibly, to improve leadership. To develop leaders in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors who are ethical and effective.

Leadership has been a growth business primarily in the West, in liberal democracies in which countless groups and organizations have poured countless sums into countless other groups and organization that profess to teach how to lead.

But,  on this particular morning, the morning of January 16, 2019, the evidence that the Leadership Industry has succeeded at its primary task – improving leadership in countries such as the United States and Great Britain – is woefully lacking. The fabled Anglo-American alliance is nowhere so apparent at this moment as in the crisis of governance that is traumatizing them both.

It is easy enough to blame others – the Russians, to take the most obvious example – for the mess in which we find ourselves. It is similarly easy to blame single individuals such as Donald Trump for his corruption and ineptitude, and Theresa May for her cluelessness and clumsiness.

But the crisis of democratic governance is primarily internal not external. And it is systemic – that is, it is about leaders, and about followers, and about the contexts within which leaders and followers are situated in the first quarter of the 21st century.

The Leadership Industry has, so far, been demonstrably unable and, or, unwilling, to address the complexities to which I allude. It has continued to skim the surface. It has continued to avoid the hard work that is necessary if ever it is to make a significant difference. And it has continued to suffer standards that are far, far, lower than they should be.  Until these things change, the Industry has no hope of contributing in a meaningful way to stilling the waters that roil many if not most Western democracies.




Leadership Lessons … from Donald J. Trump

Lesson # 1: Leaders matter – especially when they are, simultaneously, exceedingly highly positioned and inordinately disruptive. Trump sucks oxygen. He has wormed his wayward ways into our political system, into our national culture, and into our collective consciousness, and we have not, so far anyway, figured out how to dislodge him.

Lesson # 2: Followers matter – especially when they are Bystanders in situations screaming for intervention. Trump’s unfitness for the American presidency has been allowed to continue courtesy of Republican Senators who, by standing by and doing nothing while the chief executive continues to mislead and mismanage, have proven crass and craven enablers.

Lesson # 3: Contexts matter – especially when emergencies arise to which they are not accustomed and for which they were not designed. The American political system has many virtues. But grounded as it is in democratic norms and in constitutional conventions that include divided government, it is neither disposed or equipped to rapidly remove even exceedingly bad leaders from high political office.

Lesson # 4: Character matters – especially in democratic systems that at this moment in time are unusually vulnerable. In the last ten years, the number of democracies has decreased; while the number of autocracies has increased.  It is of paramount importance then that democratic leaders model the values in which democrats profess to believe. These include, minimally, a commitment to the rule of law; a commitment to facts as opposed to “alternative facts”; and a commitment to national security.

Lesson # 5: Personality matters – especially as apparent in temperament. I use the word “temperament” to denote sense and sensitivity, security and stability. President Trump inadvertently reminds us that unlike bad leaders, good leaders are sensible in their approach to the issues they face; sensitive to the problems of others; secure in who they are; and stable in their response to the tasks with which they are charged.

Lesson # 6: Knowledge matters – especially in leadership posts that are highly complex. America’s chief executive is broadly in charge of managing America’s domestic policy – and America’s foreign policy. Trump’s astonishing ignorance in both domains is a reminder if we needed one that selecting a leader who is both deeply uninformed, and strikingly incurious, is a mistake the American electorate should never repeat.

Lesson # 7: Experience matters – especially in leadership posts in which the stakes are extremely high. The nature of the experience can vary. When Mike Bloomberg became mayor of New York City his work life had been in business, not government. But Bloomberg was, and still is, an exception to the rule. In coming from nothing and making his way to the top he had proved his exceptional intelligence and remarkable competence. Trump, in contrast, was his father’s creation, and a demonstrably inept one at that. The more closely we examine Trump’s preparation for the American presidency the more it falls comically, tragically, short.

Lesson # 8: Support matters – especially political support but personal support as well. During his time in the Oval Office President Trump has been largely, strikingly, alone, rather like Richard Nixon. His band of brothers and few sisters has been narrow, and most have been short-lived. The best and brightest of the professionals have by now mostly left the White House, while those who remain, such as Jared Kushner and Steven Miller, owe their longevity primarily to their fealty. Additionally, unlike most other First Ladies, there is no evidence that Melania Trump has been a pillar of either political or personal support to her husband.

Lesson # 9: Bad leaders matter – especially when they lead a group, or an organization, or a nation that is of great consequence. It matters that the president of the United States, still the so-called leader of the free world, is so inept, and so corrupt. It matters to countless numbers at home – and abroad. It matters to America’s allies, who have been warned by having Trump in the White House. It matters to America’s adversaries, who have been warmed by having Trump in the White House.

Lesson # 10: Professionalism matters – especially in contrast to a leader who is a beginner, inexperienced and uninformed. The New York Times recently called the “Trump Shutdown” a “Tragedy of Errors.” The paper pointed to, among others, the president’s failure to know how divided government works; his failure to understand the costs of playing only to his base; and his failure to grasp how members of congress might come to collaborate.  The implicit instruction? Never select, never elect, an amateur to do a professional’s job.

Learning to Lead – Fiasco at General Electric

The leadership industry has studiously avoided studying the biggest debacle in its history: leadership learning at General Electric. Big mistake. How to learn if not from our failures as well as our successes?  How to learn to do things right without taking a long, hard look at what went wrong?

The contours of the story are familiar. In 1956 GE purchased a lovely, leafy parcel of land in Crotonville, an hour outside New York City, with the intention of transforming it into a world-class campus for learning to lead and manage. Crotonville became in time a pet project of legendary CEO Jack Welch, who would visit monthly to lead programs for rapt audiences craving a taste of GE’s secret sauce. Its secret sauce for developing leaders and managers ostensibly second to none. For the hundreds of thousands who worked at GE, a trip to Crotonville was, as the Wall Street Journal recently wrote, “an ardent desire and a treasured accomplishment.”*

But as everyone not living in a corporate cave knows by now, in recent years, most under the decade and a half tenure of Jeff Immelt, Welch’s handpicked successor, the trajectory of GE has been straight down. Its stock price is a fraction of what it was. Its assets are a fraction of what they were. The company has been booted from the Dow. And after dumping the man who inherited Immelt’s mess, John Flannery, whose own tenure at the top lasted just fifteen months, the board replaced him with Larry Culp. In an unarticulated rebuke to the temple of learning at Crotonville, Culp was the first outsider to lead GE in its 126-year history.

I should emphasize the obvious: that during its decade of decline GE’s board did little or nothing – too rudderless or too powerless to provide a corrective. Though handsomely rewarded, very handsomely rewarded, for their time and trouble, board members were mostly content to follow their leader’s lead, even as, hands held, they fell off a cliff. (Cautionary note: Immelt was both chief executive officer and chairman of the board. Not generally a good idea.)

If GE had not been so foolishly enamored with what had been crafted at Crotonville, and if GE had not been so steep in its decline, and if GE were not so oblivious to the irony of what transpired, there would be no story here. Similarly, if the leadership industry would give this case the scrutiny it deserves, there would be no lessons yet to be learned. But truth is we still don’t know what happened. How it happened that an atypically longstanding, and singularly heavy, investment in developing the world’s best leaders and managers went so badly wrong.

The Wall Street Journal closed a long, detailed article on GE this way:

“To Flannery, Immelt, Welch and the others schooled in Crotonville, Larry Culp’s ascension punctured a deep and abiding conviction: General Electric made the greatest managers in the world, who could run anything better than anyone else. When the company they loved needed them most, though, the heirs to Edison’s ingenuity had run out of ideas. In the cruelest of codas, the last CEO of America’s great industrial conglomerate would be an outsider.”

It’s a sad story – one that says at least as much about what is happening in the leadership industry as about what did happen at General Electric.


*Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann, “Burned Out,” Wall Street Journal, December 15-16, 2018.



Mini Mighty Mitt… Continued….

On May 28, 2016during the 2016 presidential campaign – I posted this blog about Mitt Romney.

I was obviously intent on praising Romney for saying straight out that if Donald Trump ever became president “he will be a danger to us all.” But I was equally obviously intent on insisting that Romney was not going nearly far enough. That instead of leading, he was choosing not to. Fact is that while he did on occasion speak out against Trump, Romney never did anything more. He never even tried to mount a loyal opposition to the candidate he charged was a real and present danger to the nation.

During Trump’s now nearly two years in the White House, this pattern has continued. Mitt Romney has been, more than he has been anything else, a Bystander. This despite the fact that while Romney has been a lifelong boy scout, something of a secular saint, Trump has been a lifelong bad boy, something of a secular sinner. And, this despite the fact that on Russia particularly, Romney famously has been at the one end of the spectrum, deeply suspicious of Russia; while Trump famously has been at the other, curiously solicitous of Russia.

Now Romney has resurfaced. He has reentered the political arena – beginning tomorrow he will be freshman senator from Utah – and chosen again to speak out against his obvious nemesis. In a scathing editorial in yesterday’s Washington Post Romney wrote this, “With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.”

So here are my questions. Will Romney be as effete and ineffectual in his opposition to Trump as he has been up to now? Or has something changed?  Will Romney finally tread where others have feared to? Will he finally emerge as a vigorous leader – or stay stuck as timorous follower?


Leaders of the Year – 2018

Time for my annual selection of …  Leaders of the Year! 

The selection is based on a single criterion: leaders who created the greatest change – for good or ill.

These are not, then, simply leaders who grabbed the greatest headlines, say Donald Trump or Mark Zuckerberg or Theresa May. I would argue, in fact, that each of these three are examples of leaders who tried, but who were not ultimately able to bend the historical trajectory.

Nor are the men and women named below necessarily exemplary examples of good leaders – good as in, simultaneously, ethical and effective. Rather they are no more than, but also no less than, leaders who in 2018 impacted the world in significant ways.

1)    Members of the Fourth Estate – particularly the American press, publishers and journalists alike. Numberless media – old and new – have contributed to the hounding and haunting of President Donald J. Trump. But old media stand out. Foremost among them are the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. Never in American history have newspapers played a more critical role in revealing ineffective and unethical leadership at the highest level. And never in American history have newspapers played such a critical role in revealing wrongdoing in other corners. Their indispensable contribution to keeping the American body politic from falling into irremediable decline will be fully appreciated only with the passage of time.

2)    Vladimir Putin continues to play his weak hand to remarkable, maximum effect. At the end of the second decade of the 21st century Russia is not in any way especially strong or impressive. By most measures the country has failed to live up to its potential; by most measures the country lags well behind many of its healthier and more prosperous European counterparts. This has not, however, precluded President Putin from putting his pernicious stamp not only on areas of the world that manifestly are restive and enfeebled, such as the Middle East; but also on areas of the world that are, or they should be, strong and stable, such as Europe and the United States. During 2018 it became clear that Putin successfully reinserted Russia as major player in the Middle East; that he successfully managed to become a real and present danger to Europe, West as well as East;  and that he successfully destabilized America’s electoral system, hence its political system.

3)    Sheryl Sandberg belongs on the list twice over. First, as COO, she, along with CEO Mark Zuckerberg managed to take one of America’s most iconic companies, Facebook, and sully it, possibly permanently. During 2018 Facebook was hit by scandal after scandal – for example, for failing to disclose the extent of its data-sharing deals – only to bury itself deeper in the muck and mire. Notwithstanding the multiple apologies offered by both top executives, Sandberg and Zuckerberg were revealed to have worked far harder at hiding the truth than at disclosing it. But… there’s more. As feminist icon and founder of the so-called Lean In movement, in 2018 Sandberg proved a grievous disappointment. There is modest evidence that women leaders are somewhat more ethical than men leaders. To the extent that this is true, Sandberg betrayed the stereotype as she did the sisterhood.

4)    Pope Francis, by not significantly changing the Church, is significantly changing the Church. In his Christmas message of a few days ago, the pope finally took a slightly stronger stand on clerical abuse than he had previously. He urged predator priests to turn themselves in “to human justice, and to prepare for divine justice.” But his message is both rather little and rather late. The pressure on the Vatican to create real change, real accountability, will come from below, from Catholic laity who are fed up with Church hierarchy. In 2018 there was more evidence, much more, of the Church’s longstanding and systematic cover up of abuse. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury report disclosed that the Church had concealed abuse charges against 300 priests over a period of 50 years. And in Illinois, the state’s attorney general let it be known that the Church had withheld the names of at least 500 priests accused of sexual abuse of minors. In 2019 the pope will be obliged, against his own apparent inclinations, to take an increasingly strong stand against priestly predators.

5)    Xi Jinping, president of China, has used the last 12 months to consolidate his power both at home and abroad. This is not to imply he is invincible. No leader ever has been or will be, no matter how complete his control or seemingly impregnable his dictatorship. Still, there is no question that in 2018 Xi completed his transition from a leader who is authoritarian to one who is totalitarian. At home he demanded and received confirmation first, that the Chinese Communist Party was the sole governing party in mainland China; second, that his own term in office was limitless, that he could continue to lead China indefinitely if he so chose; and third, that the internet in China is now so completely under the control of the state that outside information and ideas deemed dangerous can be precluded from entering the country. Moreover, under Xi’s muscular leadership China is asserting itself on the international stage, militarily as well as economically. Most striking is the level of the leader’s ambition. For example, China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast collection of infrastructure projects intended ultimately to circle the globe, is sign and symbol of Xi’s claim to greatness. His  own greatness and China’s – which in 2018 became inextricably entwined.

6)    Robert Mueller’s current title is head of the Special Council Investigation of Russian Interference in the 2016 Election and Related Matters. But his formal role belies two seemingly contradictory facts. On the one hand, for over a year and a half the man has said not a single syllable for public consumption. On the other hand, all year he has been seen akin to the Wizard of Oz: behind the curtain while holding the keys to the kingdom. The Kingdom of Trumpdom. Precisely because Mueller and his team have spoken only through the courts, and most court documents have been heavily redacted, we’re left to guess, to speculate about what exactly, after all this time (Mueller was appointed in May 2017), the Special Council has on Donald Trump, if anything. And, if it turns out there is incriminating evidence, is it sufficiently substantive to bring the president down? Without himself saying a word, Mueller has shaped our collective conversation

7)    Activists in Parkland, and at Google, set the stage for long term change. In February of this year was a shooting at the high school in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen people died. But, for once, a mass murder resulted in a gun control movement, March for Our Lives. The peak of the movement, which, famously, has been student-led, came one month after the shooting, when between one and two million Americans marched in favor of stronger firearm laws. The long-term impact of March for Our Lives remains still uncertain. But there’s a chance that seeds of change were finally sown – seeds that will someday yield the stricter gun control laws favored by nearly 70% of American voters. What happened at Google and at a few of the other major tech companies is of course different. But in the most important way it’s similar. In both cases, people without any apparent power, authority, or influence, followers, were able, by banding together, to transform into leaders, to create change. As New York Times tech columnist Kevin Roose wrote, “The most heartening trend to come out of large tech companies in 2018 was a surge in employee-led activism.” Workers at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft “created a playbook for other employee activists to follow.” A reminder that in the 21st century the roles of leader and follower are – more than ever before – fungible.

The Leader’s Letter

When does a leader become a follower? When does a follower become a leader?

They are impossible precisely to answer – but the questions are often asked. For people are coming intuitively to understand that the roles are fungible. People can be leaders at one moment, in one situation, but, then, at another moment, or in another situation, they morph into followers. The distinction between the two different roles is not always clear, which is why, as nearly always in these matters, the best answers to both questions is, “it depends.” It depends on who is the leader. It depends on who are the followers. And it depends on what is the situation.

For the sake of this discussion I will assume that during his tenure as cabinet member Secretary of Defense James Mattis has been a leader in his capacity as head of the Department of Defense. And I will assume that at the same time he has been a follower. Though he tried from time to time to slow or even circumvent orders given by the president of the United States, by and large Mattis had no choice. By and large Mattis was obliged to obey Trump’s command even when (as in the case of sending troops to America’s southern border) he thought it a fool’s errand.

Two days ago the tension between the two roles – between Mattis as dutiful leader and Mattis as reluctant follower – came to a thunderous end. Two days ago Mattis handed the president a letter of resignation of which he had previously made 50 copies. The copies were to ensure that Mattis’s letter would be read not only at home but abroad, and to ensure that the narrative of his resignation, a resignation in protest, was his, not the president’s.

Mattis’s letter is remarkable – so remarkable that I provide a link to the full text below.  Here I want to make only one point. The letter makes clear that Mattis is refusing any longer to be Trump’s follower. Mattis’s loyalty is no longer divided – it is only to his country and his conscience.

In his letter Mattis’s policy disagreements with Trump are clearly delineated. But it is his personal disdain for the president that stands out.  Not only is there not a single syllable that suggests any sort of nicety – formal or informal. There is no closing of any kind other than the Secretary’s name “Jim N. Mattis.” Not even a “Very Respectfully” – which nearly always is military practice. Mattis ends his letter by saying that he very much appreciated “this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform.” He pens nary a word about serving the president.

Mattis has managed to end his tenure as cabinet member as he began it. As a leader in full – a leader defined by admirable intellectual rigor and remarkable moral clarity.


James N. Mattis: A Great Leader – and Follower

Some six hours ago I posted the previous blog, “Four Followers. Feeble? Or Fearless”?

Now, moments ago, I learned that the Secretary of Defense, James N. Mattis, is stepping down from his position. Moreover, he made clear in his letter of resignation that he is quitting his post as an act of protest.

Mattis has been a great leader. Now he has added to his roster of brilliant accomplishments being a great follower. One who refuses to “obey leaders who give bad orders – particularly when such orders are thought likely to have deadly consequences.”

Four Followers. Feeble? Or Fearless?

He had foreshadowed his decision. Nevertheless, President Trump’s order for a complete withdrawal of American troops from Syria came as a shock.  Not only was the order sudden, abrupt, it flew in the face of the advice of virtually all the experts. The experts at home, and those abroad who count as reliable allies were all known to be strongly, even virulently opposed to reducing America’s military footprint in Syria from small to nonexistent.

The list includes those closest to the president – particularly his national security team, which includes Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo; Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; and National Security Advisor, John Bolton. In this instance it includes also a fourth :  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joseph Dunford, who is the president’s chief military advisor.

What we have then is a president who made a major military decision with major foreign policy implications not only without the consent of the four men who should be his closest counsel. But without even their knowledge – each was blindsided by the president’s order. Moreover, each is not only privately fiercely opposed to the president’s policy, but publicly. All four have at some recent point testified publicly to the utmost importance of maintaining a U. S. military presence in Syria.

Which raises this question: Given the situation in which they find themselves, what should Pompeo, Mattis, Bolton, and Dunford do? They have several choices, which range from meekly and mutely following the president’s order at the one extreme, to vigorously and vociferously resigning in protest at the other.

If they asked me, which up to now they have not, I would tell them that they must not, that they should not, be lily-livered or even timorous. That they ought to  stand up for what they believe in. That they ought to take on the president when they judge him to be deeply misguided and badly mistaken.

If their strategy is to be fearless but cautious, what should be their tactics? Six suggestions:

  • Work in concert – think collectively and act cooperatively.
  • Dawdle implementing the order.
  • Recruit allies of every stripe – military and civilian, Republican and Democrat, domestic and foreign.
  • Include in the conversation the few the president still trusts.
  • Approach the president when he is feeling least beleaguered – say during his holiday stay at Mar-a-Lago.
  • Enable him to save face.

If it turns out that they fail to persuade the president to reverse course, and if they remain persuaded that his decision is disastrous for the nation and the world, they have a moral obligation to resign in protest. Good followers refuse to obey leaders who give bad orders – particularly when such orders are thought likely to have deadly consequences.



Theresa May – The Dangling Woman

Studies of women in positions of leadership found a phenomenon that now is known as the “glass cliff.” It suggests that women are likelier than men to ascend to leadership roles during times of trouble or even crisis – that is, when the chances of their failure are relatively high.

Explanations for this are various. They include women being more expendable as scapegoats; women being better able than men to calm the roiling waters; women accepting precarious positions because they might not otherwise get to the top. The point in any case is this: women dangling dangerously from glass cliffs are sights somewhat familiar.

One could reasonably argue – and I do – that for the last two and a half years no woman has hung on more visibly and tenaciously than the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Theresa May. No woman leader has been more publicly humiliated and derided than she. And no woman leader has been more publicly determined to cling to the cliff, despite the clamor and chaos that have enveloped her from the second she ascended.

Her charge of course has been to manage Brexit. Brexit. Brexit. Brexit. The curse bestowed on May by her predecessor, David Cameron, whose stunningly stupid decision to call a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should quit the European Union left his successor with a burden best described as crushing. Whether anyone could have done a better job than May managing the impossible must remain uncertain. What is certain is that May has morphed over time into a martyr.

May is not known for handling the situation that was handed her with notable brilliance or remarkable skill. She is known for her stolid tenaciousness and relentless determination in the face of fierce opposition from every direction.

The more remarkable then that this week she finally, for the first time, lost it. She finally, for the first time, broke out of the mold that shaped this well-behaved daughter of a vicar and let loose on Jeremy Corbyn – the leader of the opposition who has tirelessly used her as his whipping girl. Visibly seething, and no doubt at the end of her tether, May let Corbyn have it. She leaned across the table and, as the Times described it, spat out her disdain. “All he wants to do is create chaos in our economy and division in our society.” Corbyn of course raged back, but no matter. The so-called “Ice Queen of Westminster” had, at least one time, allowed herself to show she was fed up. Allowed herself to reveal how completely and utterly draining it is to dangle for so long – and for all the world to see.


French Followers/French Furies

On October 1, I posted a blog titled, “French Followers Eat Their Young.” While the discussion was mostly specific – it was about the dramatic decline in popularity of French President Emmanuel Macron, who in just 18 months had morphed from Boy Wonder to Bete Noire – my overarching point was general. It was about how followers, electorates in liberal democracies, now make it inordinately difficult for leaders to govern.

What happened in France in the interim, between early October and early December, was, then, a fiasco I foretold. After a series of actions intended to reform France’s long-stagnant economy, the government announced still another: it would raise taxes on fuel. It was the last straw. It was a move guaranteed to enrage ordinary working people, that is, precisely those who had already concluded that Macron was an arrogant elitist who cared not a whit for any but his own kind.

Their response? Widescale protests that continue to stop France in its tracks – even though the government has already caved. Even though the government has already bowed to the street and agreed to retract the tax hike.

France has a long, robust tradition of strikes, of protests, of people taking to the streets when they are angry and aggrieved. But now tradition and technology have been joined. Now social media made it possible for a leaderless, rudderless, amorphous group of angry citizens to bring the government to its knees virtually overnight. (In short order an online petition coordinated by a cosmetics saleswoman had garnered a million signatures. And by mid November some 300,000 people were blocking roads and fuel depots all across France.)

But here’s the thing. Though the original demands of the demonstrators were almost immediately met, they have not been satisfied and they have not stopped. On this Saturday in the center of Paris, hundreds have already been arrested, tear gas has already been fired, and shouts of “Macron Resign” have already been ringing through the streets.