Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis (IV)

This is the fourth in a series of four blogs, each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”

IV.  Leaders – Bourgeoisie and Bosses, Owners and Employers

Adam Neumann, the eventually enormously wealthy founder of WeWork, loved buying houses. Houses as homes that he and his family could live in and relish whenever they pleased. To this end, he borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars, snapping up fabulous properties in Manhattan, Westchester, the Hamptons, and California. When the ax fell – when Neumann was forced to resign as WeWork’s chief executive because of his erratic behavior and drug use – he was eyeing buying more houses, the next in Hawaii.

By every account, in his hay day, Neumann was a charismatic leader whose combination of personality and business savvy made him singularly successful. WeWork expanded at breakneck speed, its performance so spectacular that as recently as January of this year its market value was estimated at $47 billion. But, after it was known that Neumann had personal problems, and after he botched an attempt to take the company public, he was pressured by his directors and investors to step aside as chief executive.

Neumann is not the only CEO recently to have been pushed from his perch. In the last few weeks alone has been a spate of involuntary retirements. These include Devin Weng at eBay; Kevin Burns at Juul; John Flint at HSBC; Denis Muilenburg at Boeing, who was stripped of his role as chairman though not of his responsibilities as CEO; and Herbert Diess of Volkswagen, who is still CEO but who, after being charged with stock market manipulation, is reputed to be hanging on by only a thread.     

Even the most spectacularly successful corporate leaders in recent American history – founders of tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon who managed also to grow them into virtually impregnable business behemoths – appear far more vulnerable now than they did just a few years ago.  Uber’s Travis Kalanick is out and Tesla’s Elon Musk, after admitting to excessive use of pills, is on somewhat thin ice. The point in any case is this: in recent years the tide against big tech companies – all big tech companies – has started to turn. For example, Facebook has been implicated in swinging the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. Google has been fined in multiple countries for its monopolistic practices. And issues such as privacy and kowtowing to Chinese authorities are bedeviling each of these companies effectively constantly. Each is being held to account by politicians and regulators as never before – though the most successful among them continue to remain as powerful as preeminent.

The rate of CEO turnover was higher in 2018 than at any time since the 2008 financial crisis. Additionally, though it’s too early to tell what will happen in 2020, we can say for certain that in 2018 more members of the House of Representatives chose not to run again than at any time in the last quarter century. In other words, leaders in both business and government are both less secure than they were and, to all appearances, less happy than they were. The rewards of leading are less than they were a generation ago, despite what in the corporate sector remain sky high incomes.

The temper of the times is in any case already reflected in one of the key issues of the 2020 presidential campaign, taxing the wealthy. “As the 2020 election approaches, a new crop of Democratic candidates has opened a much larger field of play on this issue, cheered by voters who tell pollsters the economy is stacked against the working class and in favor of the rich. Those candidates are looking beyond the income tax – which many of them would [in any case] increase for the rich – and offering plans to tax wealth, investments and a variety of other hallmarks of the economic top 1 percent.”* For example, Elizabeth Warren is proposing a tax on the 75,000 wealthiest American households, as well as an array of increased investment and payroll taxes specifically aimed at high earners.

The humungous wealth gap between those at the top – including in the United States – and those in the middle and at the bottom rankles to the point of restiveness. Which explains why the tensions that underpin the Communist Manifesto continue to linger, deep into the 21st century. No question that employees are becoming more restive. No question that employers are becoming more vulnerable. This is not, of course, to suggest that the system, here American capitalism, is under threat. It is, however, to suggest that the class struggle, the contest between competing groups, that Marx and Engels so brilliantly depicted a century and a half ago, remains relevant today as it did then. Arguably not as relevant but, nevertheless, relevant.

The leadership industry does not conceive of leaders as bourgeoisie or bosses, or as owners or employers. Nor for that matter are followers thought of as proletariats, workers, or employees. Further, leaders particularly are defined hundreds of different ways, some of which include people without any of the usual resources, such as power, authority, and money. I though am arguing here as I always do – for using plain English. In plain English leaders usually are thought of as people who have control, such as owner and employers. And, in plain English followers usually are thought of as people who have little or no control, such as workers and employees. It is in keeping with these commonsensical conceptions that seeing leaders and followers as engaged in a permanent struggle, even a class struggle, seems reasonable and defensible – as opposed to unreasonable and indefensible.

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*”Finding Solutions,” New York Times, September 19, 2019.

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