I said I wasn’t blogging any more – at least not for now. It’s because I’m writing a book and I can’t walk and walk at the same time.
But I cannot let this one go by. If you care at all about lame leaders, or fed up followers, you must, you simply must, follow the current court proceedings of Putin’s nemesis, Aleksei Navalny.
I have watched Navalny for years – and written about him with some frequency. But this time is different. This time Putin is playing hard ball with the man who is the brave-to-the-point-of-being-foolhardy leader of the Russian opposition.
But, Russia’s autocrat has just one small problem. If he goes too far, if Putin sees to it that Navalny is jailed for any considerable length of time, he, Putin, is the one at greater risk. Though his Russian opponents have for now been intimidated, don’t count on them lying low indefinitely. Putin, in any case, is unlikely to underestimate them. it’s why chances are he will go easy on Navalny – at least for now.
I’m good at multi-tasking. I can walk and chew gum at the same time.
But when it comes to writing it’s different – at any given moment I prefer working on only one project. So, I’m giving it up – I’m giving up, for now, being a regular blogger. For against all odds, and though I swore I wouldn’t, I’ve begun another book – another book on leadership and followership.
Anyone who has read my blog even intermittently will know that there are certain themes to which I return. They include but are not limited to lousy leaders; fed-up followers; the decline of leaders and the rise of followers; the impact of technology on patterns of leadership and followership; Putin as a tyrant, perhaps a petty one, but a tyrant nonetheless; the long hand of the law in snaring the unsuspecting; women either idolized (Hillary) or vilified (Pakistan and many more); single individuals as agents of change (Malala); public opinion as a force always to be reckoned with; the impact of art and popular culture on what people think and on how they behave; and how leadership and followership are not static, but fluid.
This second decade of the 21st century is the overarching context within which leadership and followership are now being exercised. This means that while differences still pertain, as they always do – among, say, countries and cultures, groups and organizations – the environment for how change is created is, as of this writing, this year, 2013. The implication is obvious – that at least some of what I said in this blog will prove evanescent. As a long time observer of power, authority, and influence, I know one thing, that there is one constant, change. Perfect for blogs – which become in an instant part of the ether!
The recent rape and resultant death of a young Indian woman received worldwide attention. There was outrage over the brutality of the case – and shock such a horrific act could take place on a public bus in one of India’s largest cities, New Delhi.
What’s come to our attention since then is, arguably, worse: a culture that effectively condones vicious violence against women – this in an ostensible democracy that has one of the world’s largest, most recently successful economies.
India is not alone in tolerating this plague. Levels of domestic violence are higher in other countries, including, for example, Columbia, Egypt, and Zambia. Moreover in a New York Times article titled, “Is Delhi So Different from Steubenville?”, Nicholas Kristof points out that Americans are hardly immune. (The reference is to an alleged rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, in which high school football players are accused of repeatedly raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl.) In fact, so far Congress has failed to renew the Violence against Women Act, a law first passed in 1994 which since has expired.
Still the numbers in India are staggering. Some two million women die annually, unnecessarily, for reasons ranging from female infanticide and infant neglect, to a high rate of death in childbirth, to domestic violence, to poor care of the elderly which affects women at a far higher rate than men. 25,000 to 100,000 women are killed each year – many by being burned alive – only over dowry disputes.
I’ve written about this issue before – in a blog titled “Enough is Enough.” But I’m moved to do so again because what I’ve learned since late December is altogether disgusting, depressing, degrading. What will it take to make violence against women as socially unacceptable, as politically egregious and outrageous as, say, slavery? The answer is not completely clear -but one thing we know for certain. The leadership class has failed to do what must be done. What this means is that for change to take place – real, meaningful, enduring change – followers will have to rise from their torpor and lead the charge. Step one is to wake up and see extreme violence against women for what it is – torture.
Until he hung himself I had no idea who was 26-year-old Aaron Swartz. Now I do. He was a technophile, a brilliant programming prodigy, who additionally was a provocative and controversial thinker on the dissemination of information.
Turns out he was far out. Swartz was a radical on the subject of free information, believing the Internet could and should provide easy, open access to whatever constitutes our collective body of knowledge. In this one way he was similar to Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, and to members of other loose-knit groups such as Anonymous, which are similarly disposed to disclose.
Swartz was also rather like Bradley Manning, the 21-year-old soldier who in 2010 was charged by the government with collaborating with Assange to upload thousands of secret U. S. documents. For his troubles, Manning was sealed in solitary confinement for nine months. Moreover in spite of his facing a possible life sentence, he sits in prison still – over a thousand days after his initial arrest. If only on this one count – if only because was denied the right to a fair and speedy trial – Manning has been abused by the government that once he served.
At the time of his suicide, Swartz was in a situation not entirely dissimilar. In 2011 he was arrested and accused of using MIT’s computers to gain illegal access to millions of scholarly papers – which he then illegally downloaded. Like Manning he believed that what he was doing was right. Like Manning he ran afoul of the law. And, like Manning, the government went after him full force. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing the possibility of millions of dollars in fines and legal fees, and up to 35 years in jail.
My comment is not about whatever the crime Manning did or did not commit, or about whatever the crime Swartz did or did not commit. My comment is about whether or not in both cases the proposed punishment could possibly be said to fit the crime. On the face of it, Manning and Swartz, however different, did share their youth, their idealism, and their deep commitment to the widespread dissemination of all information. For the government to wreck these young lives, to treat these two men as if they were the most abject of criminals, is a misuse, an abuse, of government power. At an absolute minimum the death of Aaron Swartz should occasion a revision of computer crime laws, and the elimination of overzealous prosecutors who are hell bent on squashing any David who dares take on Goliath.
The conventional wisdom is that Wall Street has got off Scot free – that those responsible for the financial crisis never had to atone for their wrongdoing. The conventional wisdom is, in other words, greed pays.
The conventional wisdom is right – but only to a point. It’s true that most individuals who played a part in the debacle – whether on Wall Street, or in Washington, or along any of the other corridors of power – never had to pay a personal price for the errors of their ways. But it’s also true that some in the financial services industry have been, will be penalized for their voracious appetites.
I have no pity for the industry. Still, let’s get real. During any given week – during the last one, for example – it’s plain to see financial services is paying the piper, at least to a degree. Here three recent examples:
First, Morgan Stanley announced it would eliminate some 1,600 jobs. CEO James Gorman had cautioned some months ago that the entire industry was suffering from “way too much capacity,” and that compensation that was “way too high.” The cull conveyed this week was on top of one last year, which already cost some 4,000 Morgan Stanley their jobs. Moreover Morgan Stanley is hardly alone. Last year Citigroup said it would eliminate 11,000 jobs, and UBS said it would cut 10,000.
Not incidentally, among those hardest hit are leaders and managers high in earnings and high on the corporate ladder. Wall Street veterans are particularly vulnerable, with banks and securities firms looking to cut costs by bringing in younger, less-experienced, and cheaper employees.
Second, the legendarily successful hedge-fund group SAC, led by legendarily successful trader and founder Steven A. Cohen, let it be known, if not yet publicly, that it was bracing itself for monstrously large client withdrawals, possibly totaling some 17% of assets from outside investors. Why has this threat come to pass? Not because of a sudden rash of poor performance. Rather it is that SAC recently has been an obvious target of government investigators, ready to pounce on charges of insider trading. In fact, some lower level types at SAC have already been charged, in hopes of, among other things, ultimately snagging, nailing, Cohen himself.
Finally there’s this nasty message – or, if you prefer, cautionary note – from the CEO of UBS (formerly Union Bank of Switzerland), Andrea Orcel. Orcel warned that bankers were too “arrogant.” They were “too self-convinced that things were correct they way they were – I think the industry has to change.” He added that UBS was itself now “trying to recover the honor and standing that the organization had in the past.”
So why now Orcel’s incantation? Maybe, just maybe, it’s because UBS has had a dreadful time of it in recent years: putrid publicity, serious scandals, and large losses.
I’m not claiming that there has been punishment enough. All I’m saying is that to insist that Wall Street has got off Scot-free is to insist wrong.
Grist for my mill in today’s Wall Street Journal. It’s a piece by Vipal Monga titled, “Boards Cozy Up to Investors.” It should’ve been titled, “Boards Run Scared, So They Make Nice.”
Members of corporate boards are finally feeling obliged to do what they never wanted or intended: interact with investors. They used to get away with turning to management to address any issues that arose. No longer. No longer are boards protected against shareholders who are irate or have a gripe – for increasingly shareholders threaten to act like the owners they really are.
The numbers remain small, very small. By and large shareholders remain patsies, passive investors rather than active ones. But since the say-on-pay rules mandated by Dodd-Frank have been implemented, “shareholders are increasingly likely to challenge executive pay packages they consider too generous or at odds with their own interests.” Put another way, shareholders are increasingly likely to challenge the boards who determine these pay packages. It’s only one of many reasons board members are beginning to feel the heat. Like so many others in positions of power and authority, they are are no longer immune to public pressure. It’s is why instead of continuing to operate anonymously, behind the scenes, directors are making themselves “available for direct engagement with shareowners.”.
It’s likely that after all the screaming and yelling is done, Chuck Hagel will pass muster in the Senate. He will emerge from the proceedings confirmed as Secretary of Defense. But he will have been bloodied – therefore weakened – even before beginning his new job.
Hagel is a tough guy. I’m not exactly worried about him on a personal level. But I am worried about him as a professional performer. Whether he will be able to do accomplish even half the task that Obama wants and intends is an open question. Cutting the Pentagon down to size is Herculean work under optimum circumstances. Under this circumstance – the leader demeaned and diminished even before taking office – the work is obviously the more daunting.
Whatever we may think of a leader like Hagel – or for that matter, John Boehner – we should note the complexity of the context within which they are obliged to operate. In this second decade of the twenty-first century, Americans demand of their public servants that they swim in shark- infested waters.
Whoever said that good old-fashioned journalism was dead and gone? Whoever said that in the Internet age newspapers were obsolete? Whoever said that investigative reporting was a thing of the past?
Whoever did, forgot to check with the Executive Editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson.
Under her editorship, investigative reporting has distinguished the New York Times and served as reminder of how much we need great papers. Seems every month someone at the Times crafts another piece of reporting that is hard-nosed and hard won. Take, for example, the series on Wal-Mart in China, or on the business of horseracing, or, as previously mentioned, on Foxconn. (See blog titled, “The Promise of Good Followership – Apple Ripens.”) They each required on the part of the paper a major investment of time and money. Over many months, sources had to be collected and confirmed, and facts had to be checked and rechecked.
In a speech she delivered last June, Abramson reaffirmed the importance of investigative reporting – and warned of a crackdown on those who leak government secrets. Ironically, given his reputation as a liberal democrat, Barack Obama or, at least, members of his administration, have been especially keen to prosecute those who make overt what the White House wants kept covert. Remember what became of Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with aiding and abetting Julian Assange? In her speech, Abramson went so far as to say that “the environment in Washington has never been more hostile to report in.”
All the more reason to applaud the Times for regularly investing in investigative journalism. In order for the relatively powerless to hold to account the relatively powerful, they need to be armed with information that is qualitatively and quantitatively superior to what the Internet is likely to yield.
• Fed – Up Follower of the Year: Malala Yousafzai
The more I read about her, the more I conclude that in the beginning she was only an arrow in her father’s quiver. He used her, even as a girl, to further his own activist agenda. Still, the impression from a distance is that over time, as she transitioned from childhood to adolescence, his agenda became hers. By the time the Taliban shot and gravely wounded Malala – on a school bus no less – she had come herself deeply to believe that Pakistani girls should have access to education as do Pakistani boys.
This is the cause that she has championed for years, though even now she is only 15. And this is the cause that nearly got her killed. But, the attempted assassination made her a martyr. She has become a worldwide symbol of daring to speak truth to power, of daring to stand up and be counted while most of the rest stay silent. Malala Yousafzai is a fed-up follower bold enough and brave enough to take on leaders too frightened or hide-bound themselves to create change. Without any obvious sources of power, authority, or influence, she has, notwithstanding her tender age, left an imprint that will long endure.
• Lame Leader of the Year: Bashar al-Assad
“Lame” does not quite capture the President of Syria – “lousy” or even “lethal” is better.
For many months now most of the experts have been predicting Assad’s imminent departure – or his immanent demise. It has been thought unlikely or even impossible that he could survive for any length of time the increasingly impassioned and widespread rebellion against his rule. Well, the experts were wrong. Thanks to, among others, his patron Putin, he remains in harness, clinging to power as his country collapses around him.
The effort to negotiate Assad’s exit continue (with Putin perhaps playing a more constructive role). But the costs of our collective helplessness and haplessness have been high. Since the rebellion, now a full-fledged civil war, started, tens of thousands have been killed and injured and hundreds of thousands more have fled into exile or been another way dislocated. Moreover given the suffering on all sides, while Assad’s own future is not in doubt (he will at some point go), Syria’s is fraught with peril.
I am among the many millions worldwide who have watched and waited for Assad to fall. But here he is still standing – nearly two years after the protests against him and his regime began in earnest. He is living testimony to one of humankind’s most dreadful dilemmas: how to respond when a bad leader is willing to do whatever it takes to hold on.
On January 25, 2012, the New York Times published the first of a two-part series headlined, “In China, Human Costs are Built Into an iPad.” The articles were landmark investigative journalism.
Before they were published, it seemed no one had thought much about how Apple’s iconic line of products was actually made. Instead, they simply appeared on a regular basis, almost like magic, emanations from the fervid, fervent brain of singular Steve Jobs. However, once the information contained in the Times became public knowledge, our collective disinterest came to a crashing halt.
The Times minced no words in disclosing Apple’s reprehensible labor practices. (Need I add that technology companies other than Apple, such as Dell, for example, and Hewlett-Packard, were no better?) Here is an excerpt from the Times’ original piece.
“Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records….More troubling [advocacy groups] say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories… killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions….”
The Times story broke not long after Jobs’ death, and the succession as CEO of Tim Cook. His initial response to the expose was to play defense, insisting the charges against Apple were “patently false and offensive.” Still, he did go on to say that the company would not turn a blind eye to whatever any problems, adding that “on this you have my word.”
Cook was as good as his word – if only because the media and the public held his feet to the fire. The Times had uncovered the blatant disparity between Apple’s shiny new products, and the wretched conditions under which they were made. So this was a story that had legs. Within a month after the series saw the light of day, Cook took his first conciliatory step: he requested that the Fair Labor Association audit Apple’s labor practices.
Less than one year after the original Times piece came out, there was a second front page story on Apple. This one was published on December 27 under the headline, “Signs of Changes Taking Hold in Electronic Factories in China.” The article describes how during the last several months high ranking Apple executives had become directly and deeply involved in how Apple products are made. As a result, the company publicly committed itself to several wide-ranging reforms, including curtailing workers’ hours and increasing their wages. Moreover the changes within Apple extend to California, where the company is based. In the last year, Apple has “tripled its corporate social responsibility staff, has re-evaluated how it works with manufacturers, has asked competitors to help curb excessive overtime in China and has reached out to advocacy groups it once rebuffed.”
What explains this dramatic change? It was not that Tim Cook – not to speak of his predecessor Steve Jobs – woke up one morning saying, “Golly, gee, I’ve seen the light! Apple has to be nicer and kinder and more generous to those in its employ!” Hardly. Rather it was first and foremost the Times’ expose – an invaluable reminder of how vital to a healthy society is investigative journalism. Second it was the public response to what the Times had disclosed. The revelations regarding Apple did not fall on deaf hears. Rather they spoke to ordinary people, who were coming to conclude it was dishonorable to delight in a device manufactured under conditions described as Dickensian.
Once word got out about Apple – it got to the point of being skewered on “Saturday Night Live” – the downside risk was so great there was no choice. There was no choice for Apple’s leaders but to follow Apple’s followers.