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.

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