Leaders of the Year/ Followers of the Year – 2019

The leaders listed below are those who had the greatest impact on the course of human affairs during 2019 – for good or ill. The rankings are in alphabetical order.

  1. Marc Benioff, Founder, Chairman, and co-CEO of Salesforce. Benioff’s company has been fabulously successful, making him fabulously wealthy. But it is as an avatar of good corporate leadership that Benioff has made his mark. His recent book especially, Trailblazer, puts him at the forefront of corporate leaders worldwide who argue that their ilk should be driven by visions more expansive than the companies they run.  
  2. Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Xi appeared on this list last year but necessarily he is making a repeat appearance. Nothing has happened in the last twelve months to diminish his impact. To the contrary, China is more powerful than ever – and Xi is more powerful than ever. With every passing year he controls China with a tighter fist. And with every passing year his appetite for global greatness grows with his eating.     
  3. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of Great Britain and leader of the Conservative Party. Contrary to expectations, the boisterous blond sometime buffoon has had the last laugh. In an early December election, he trounced the opposition – which means that for better and worse he has been empowered by his people to negotiate a deal to extract Britain from the European Union. Johnson is situated to influence the course of continental politics for years if not decades to come.     
  4. Dennis Muilenburg, former CEO of Boeing. Muilenburg is not entirely to blame. But he is partly to blame for presiding over one of the biggest corporate debacles in recent years. Despite several warnings which several Boeing executives knew about, on Muilenburg’s watch two 737 MAX airliners crashed within five months of each other, killing all 346 people on board. In the wake of the disasters Muilenburg’s handling of the crisis was so obviously clumsy and counterproductive that, finally, he was canned.
  5. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India. Since 2014 Modi has been leader of what sometimes is called the world’s largest democracy. Early on some thought him a reformer who had the potential to lead India to greater equity and prosperity. In the last year, however, perceptions of him changed. Increasingly he is seen as a fervid, fervent Hindu nationalist, especially at the expense of India’s 200 million Muslims. In recent weeks protests erupted around the country, specifically against a new citizenship law that favors religious groups other than Muslims. Time is running short if it is not already out for Modi to show people at home and abroad that he is a leader who is at least somewhat even-handed, not a dictator who regularly tips the scales in favor of his own kind.  
  6. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. Pelosi has been a powerful player in Washington for decades. But it is only in the last year that she has become a commanding force: fully in control of her own Party and fiercely in opposition to the incumbent president. Pelosi has become so dominant a figure that history will judge her one of the most impactful American leaders – not just American women leaders – ever. The course she charts in the coming months will go a long way toward charting the course of American politics for some time to come.
  7. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia. He’s another repeat on this list. But how to exclude the poker-faced master at playing poker? The leader who plays a weak hand better than any of his opponents? Russia under Putin is nothing much to boast about. It is 25 times bigger than Texas and has more than five times as many people – yet its economy is measurably smaller. None of this has precluded Putin from successfully meddling in, mucking up, American politics. Or successfully meddling in, mucking up, European politics. Or successfully meddling in, mucking up, Middle East politics.   
  8. Megan Rapinoe, Captain of the U.S. Women Soccer Team.Rapinoe, a force of nature, has already been compared to two other great athlete-activists, Billie Jean King and Muhammed Ali. Both left an enduring mark on American sports – and on American culture and politics. Early evidence is Rapinoe will do the same. She is singularly smart and opinionated, exceptionally ambitious and tenacious. She is, moreover, tough enough to mow anyone dumb enough to get in her way.
  9. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States. Never in my experience has an American leader so completely dominated the national discourse or so heedlessly toyed with the temper of his time. Trump is leader of a cult whose members remain captured and enraptured no matter his transgressions – and he is leader of every other American caught in his preternaturally powerful grip.  Late night host Jimmy Kimmel summarized succinctly the situation. “I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump every night. None of us do. But he gives us no choice.”   
  10. Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for a Digital Age. As I wrote earlier (blog  dated November 23), at a time when most of do nothing “while big tech intrudes on the common good, invades our personal space, and distorts the national discourse, Vestager has figured out how to use the power of her post to contain and even clamp down on companies that have, by general consensus become much, much too big for their britches.” Americans have been slow to see the dangers and downsides of big tech. Europeans, in contrast, have been clear-eyed for years – for which they have Vestager in good part to thank.

The followers listed below are those who had the greatest impact on the course of human affairs during 2019 – for good or ill. In my book, Followership, I define followers as subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line. According to my definition, then, followers can never have more power and authority than their leader(s). But they can – and sometimes they do – have influence. Which means they can – and sometimes they do – make history.

  1. Thunberg. In the last year Greta Thunberg, the now world famous 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, morphed from being a largely unknown outlier to epicenter of a global movement. A global movement of people extremely worried and exceedingly angry about the lack of adequate, requisite, progress on climate change. Thunberg has no power whatsoever – she is not able either to punish or reward. She does not, moreover, have any authority. She does not hold a post or position of any kind, nor does she have any credentials that would entitle or even legitimize her to speak as an expert. As an Activist, however, she has been able to exercise inordinate influence, influence that seems entirely out of proportion to her persona. But it is, of course, precisely her persona that enables Thunberg to capture the attention of legions, transforming her from seemingly shy girl or maybe young woman into a force to be reckoned with. Thunberg has not worked magic. There is a yawning gap between raising global awareness and changing public policy. One could reasonably argue, however, and I do, that consciousness raising is the critical first step, a step Thunberg vividly, dramatically, prompts us to take.           
  2. Republicans. Though in theory congressional Republicans particularly have power, and they equally have authority, during the last three years they have, for all practical purposes, abdicated both. Up to now at least, Republican legislators have become abjectly subservient to the executive, to President Trump. He is their leader; they are, in lockstep, his followers.  To state that this is other than what the Framers originally intended is to state the obvious. The American system of government was designed to provide checks and balances, the one branch of government expected to check and balance the other two. But absent the political will to do the political work the system seizes up – it cannot function as it should. Congressional Republicans have become Trump’s toadies for reasons that range from the preferences of their constituents to ideological alignments. Still, one branch of the American government Kowtowing to the other? Nothing good can come of it. Nothing good can come of people being craven – especially when the position they hold requires precisely the opposite.  
  3. Protesters. For reasons experts are struggling to explain, 2019 saw a spate of public protests worldwide – in, for example, Iran, Iraq and India; and in Chile, Columbia, and Bolivia. Especially striking and potentially consequential have been the protests this year in Hong Kong. Evidence of political unrest in Hong Kong began years ago, in 2014, during the so-called “Umbrella Revolution,” when China’s increasingly autocratic president, Xi Jinping, clearly became increasingly controlling. Not just within China but without, specifically in Hong Kong which had been turned over by the British to the Chinese less than two decades before. Since the Umbrella Revolution, discontent has curdled into anger, which explains the eruption in 2019. An all-out, full-force protest by Hong Kongers against their China-sanctioned leaders and, more to the point, against Beijing itself. To be clear: the protesters were, are, followers. They are ordinary people, Hong Kongers without power or authority. But, obviously, they have accrued over time, in large part on account of their large numbers, influence. Protesters in Hong Kong are not a fringe group. The number of those who have been in some way engaged is enormous: nearly 2 million followers have taken to the streets to take on their leaders. Leaders who as of this writing have not been able effectively to respond. Xi particularly is in a quandary. He has had no obvious recourse – no clear path to getting his putative followers to fall into line. Short of slaughtering at least some number of protesters, many of whom are young, it is not clear that anything Xi can do will stop Hong Kongers from challenging his power and authority. As we transition from 2019 into 2020, they are at the forefront of followers worldwide protesting the status quo. And in this case taking the risk of asking this question, are tyrants too powerful to topple?  

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