What follows is the text of a keynote speech that I delivered on October 27, 2018, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association (ILA) meeting in West Palm Beach.
One day, late last August, the New York Times printed and posted several articles that signal this speech on Standards.
When Erin Schrode ran for Congress in 2016 she woke to find tens of thousands of messages in her e mail, on her phone, and posted to her various other social media. One said, “All would laugh with glee as they gang raped her and then bashed her bagel-eating brains in.” Another said, “It’d be amusing to see her take twenty or so for 8 or 10 hours,” again suggesting gang-rape. In the case of Erin Schrode at least, the abuses – a toxic sludge of online trolling steeped in misogyny and anti-Semitism, that also included photo-shopped images of her face stretched into a Nazi lampshade, and references to “pre-heating the ovens” – never stopped.
In this election cycle, in 2018, the abuses against women in politics have only increased. A Democrat running for a congressional seat in Iowa, Kim Weaver, gave up her campaign against the Republican incumbent when a neo-Nazi web site published an article about her titled, “Meet the Whore Who’s Running Against Steven King.”
On the same day, it was August 26th to be precise, the Times published another article on a different subject altogether, that nevertheless was all about, you got it, the erosion of standards that in recent years has gone from creep to gallop. “Trump Assails Legal System,” ran the headline, “Eroding Trust.” Whatever you might think of President Donald Trump, it is inarguable that in the last year he has relentlessly criticized the Justice Department; fired some of its top officials; questioned the integrity of prosecutors leading the Russia investigation; mercilessly demeaned and defiled his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions; and, more generally, recklessly bandied about terms with possible legal implications such as “flip,” “witch hunt,” “treason,” and “lock her up.” The president’s flagrant flaunting of respect for the law, and for that matter for anything resembling civil discourse more generally, threatens increasingly not only to further erode faith in our legal system, but, more importantly, to further erode public trust in the various pillars of American democracy.
I hasten to add the American presidency is not the only institution so diminished. As we recently witnessed, the Senate has dropped the rules of decorum that for most of American history were the hallmark of what once was referred to as “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” And it manifestly shed some simple but, one would have thought, essential standards such as veracity, and the virtues of the rules of evidence. That the Supreme Court has itself recently been diminished in the eyes of many if not most Americans, goes nearly without saying.
Nor are standards being eroded only in the public sector. As that same issue of the Times testified, the private sector contributes mightily to the sense in the US that something’s off, that something – that everything – is in decline. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth companies in several of the nation’s key industries suppress both wages and growth. There is the growing suspicion that a few behemoth technology companies control too much of our individual lives, and intrude on too much of our collective lives. And, there is the growing suspicion that those few at the top see nothing wrong with their being infinitely better off even than those in the middle, and certainly than those at the bottom. Since 1978 the average American paycheck increased 11.2%. During this same period the average CEO’s pay increased 937%. Even the American Dream has effectively vanished – or, better, moved north, to Canada. Moving from the bottom 5th of income level to the top 5th, is now twice as likely to happen in Canada as in the US.
Nor, obviously, have standards been eroded only in the United States. Again, in that very same issue of the NY Times was an article that described the Irish Catholic Church as being “in tatters;” that alluded to related, wretched, recent abuses uncovered in Chile, as well as in the US; and that described a Pope, Pope Francis obviously, who was repeatedly reduced to voicing regret at the legacy of abuse in the Catholic Church worldwide.
Of course, the Church is not the only institution that has been so charged. Moreover, one could argue that the revelations of abuse of minors, which cascaded beginning in 2002, are helping to restore standards, not abetting their diminishment still further. But it cannot be denied that the revelations themselves, and the Church’s real reluctance fully to face the implications thereof, have contributed significantly to the sense that what we used to assume were generally high standards of behavior by people in positions of authority – whether priests or teachers, judges or generals, private sector executives or public sector politicians – was an illusion. Where once we thought, or perhaps foolishly presumed, were generally high standards of personal and professional conduct, now we know this was an illusion.
This is not, of course, to say that every leader is bad, painted with a sullied brush. Rather it is to say that we have a stronger sense that people, all people, no matter their status or station, are complicated: a mix of passions, proclivities and personalities; drives, motives and incentives; sensitivities, sensibilities, and standards. Additionally, now we now know that in some cases were no standards at all, at least not as we conventionally think of them. No standards at the level of the institution (think Volkswagen or Wells Fargo; the Department of the Interior or the city of Flint, MI); and no standards at the level of the individual (think Travis Kalanick, Paul Manafort, or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin).
Since I am speaking today to you, members of the International Leadership Association, let me state directly that leaders – defined for the present purpose as those in positions of power and authority – have contributed mightily to this decline in the erosion of standards or, at a minimum, to the perceived decline.
For our purpose. the reasons for this are twofold. The first are changes in our culture, arguably especially those that relate to levels of transparency. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the details of dalliances of presidents of the United States. We now tend to know, we now tend to demand to know, the drinking habits and sexual proclivities of nominees for the Supreme Court. We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the intricacies of intimacies practiced by men in position of power and authority on women who are not. (And yes, sex plays an important role in this cultural shift….) We now tend to know, we now demand to know, the truths about taxes and finances; about monies stashed at home or abroad; about hidden bank accounts, secret payoffs, and shady dealings.
The level of transparency is now such that people with zero power, authority, or influence feel more entitled to be told whatever there is to be told about those who rank higher than they. We now have victims of clerical abuse stepping up and willingly testifying to what was done to them when they were children and adolescents. We now have investigative reporters unearthing dirt on some of the highest and mightiest of our species. We now have women coming out and taking on men in ways previously unheard of. The result is that leaders have been increasingly demystified. Something of a sea change!
The extreme changes in our culture have, of course, been aided and abetted by the extreme changes in our technologies. I need hardly point out to this group the impact of social media on patterns of dominance and deference, on the dynamics between those who apparently are powerful and those who apparently are powerless. The #MeToo movement, arguably led by the work of three investigative journalists, is just one example, albeit a striking one, of the intersections of which I speak. The #MeToo movement is all about sex; or, if you prefer, it is all about dominance and submission; or, if you prefer, it is all about power and the lack thereof. It is, in any case, about behaviors that went nearly entirely unreported for most of human history but that have become, only recently, grist for our collective mill.
The fact that sexual harassment and sexual abuse, along with other nasty proclivities such as virulent racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, have, to a degree, been outed, certainly in the United States, is attributable to changes in the culture. But, this outing would have been impossible absent the presence of social media, a technology that has enabled, indeed encouraged, an uncontainable contagion. There is a reason that authoritarian systems are hellbent now on controlling the internet!
Sad to say that the severe erosion of leadership – the destructive, dramatic decline in standards, in the conviction that the US is exceptional in its moral core, in trust in leading individuals and in the institutions that they profess to lead – has coincided completely with the rise of, the burgeoning of, what some of you in this audience know that I refer to as the leadership industry. The two axes intersect almost exactly. The decline of the one, leadership, intersects with the rise of the other, the leadership industry.
I, at least, think this must, or at least it should, give us pause. I am not, of course, suggesting that the leadership industry – of which virtually every one of us here in attendance is a card-carrying member – is responsible for this decline. What I am saying though is that, manifestly, we have been unable to stop it, to stem the tarnished tide. We, we in the leadership industry, continue to do our thing, while the context within which inevitably we are embedded testifies to the inability of leaders – most strikingly, most sadly, in liberal democracies – to make followers feel that they are being led wisely and well.
While leaders in other sectors are, as indicated, not immune, the decline of political leaders in liberal democracies, especially in the last five years or so, has been especially painful to witness. Nearly no nation has been immune to the trend. The US as an example, under President Donald Trump, is obvious. Great Britain has struggled, is struggling, mightily, to its indefinite detriment, with the question of how to manage Brexit. France’s Emanuel Macron, just 18 months ago widely perceived a boy wonder, has endured a strikingly rapid and dramatic decline in his approval ratings. Angela Merkel, for years a stalwart of Western leadership, is manifestly on the wane and on her way out. Sweden, in most of our eyes a paragon of Western virtues, is enduring a crisis of governance and confidence. Europe’s eastern countries – such as Austria, Hungary, and Poland – have had their democracies put to the test by shifts toward populism, nationalism, and some would argue flat out authoritarianism. In our own hemisphere, Brazil and Venezuela testify to how close we are to various, dangerous precipices. And nations that less than ten years ago had shown signs of loosening the reins of authority – nations such as Russia, China, Egypt, and Turkey – have in more recent years reverted to tightening them. Each of these countries, and then some, are more oppressive and repressive than they were a decade ago. Standards of human decency, human rights, have not ascended; they have descended.
Which brings us inevitably to two hard questions. The first is general: How and why during the last decade did we arrive at this sorry pass? As I suggested, larger forces are at play here, such as changes in culture and technology. There is, additionally, the overarching trajectory of human history, and the various cycles of human history, to which I often in my teaching and writing refer. The second question is specific. What has the leadership industry – specifically those of us deeply dedicated to a well-intentioned association such as this one, the International Leadership Association, on this occasion justly celebrating its 20th anniversary – done to address the deep, steep decline in trust in what we might broadly call the leadership class? What in other words, have we, we putative leadership experts, contributed to the improvement of the human condition during a time when leading in liberal democracies, indeed leading everywhere, seems more complex, complicated, convoluted, and confounding a task than ever? How have we been responsible, accountable?
I do not for one moment question the proposition that as individuals, and in groups, those of us in the International Leadership Association have done good work.
What I do question though is whether the work that we have done is good enough. What I do question though is whether the good work that we did do is being adequately disseminated and actually implemented. What I do question though is whether as individuals and especially as a collective we have done enough to address the decline in standards to which I here refer. What I do question though is whether we have taken a good, hard look at the work we do as a critical mass of leadership experts, leadership professionals. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to elevate leaders in the eyes of their followers. What I do question though is whether there is more that we can do, more that we should do, to raise the standards to which leaders are held. What I do question though is whether all of us, including those of us putative experts and educators in this organization, the International Leadership Association, have done the very best we know how to help leaders, and leader learners, do better.
Let me provide just one quick but telling example. My colleague and friend, Denny Roberts, recently brought to my attention the fact that in 2012 the Board of the International Leadership Association was presented with a White Paper that called for “more conscious attention to both legitimacy and accountability of leadership as a field of study within higher education.” This White Paper is a sensible, smart, serious attempt to apply standards to leadership learning, standards that include steps such as internal program reviews, external program reviews, certification, and accreditation. But, as I further understand it, the ILA Board tabled the idea at the time, which is where the White Paper, as of now, still sits. One line from the concluding section of this paper reads, “It is the recommendation of the Formalized Program Review Task Force that, as part of its offerings/services, the International Leadership Association establish external formalized program reviews.”
I want to be clear here. I was not part of this White Paper Task Force. And I was not privy to any of the relevant discussions either within the ILA or outside it. I am therefore in no position to know what happened or why. But I raise the subject because it pertains, directly, to my general concern about setting standards for leaders, and to my specific concern about what the ILA could do, should do, to foster the establishment and indeed the implementation of such standards. As if it were, or aspired to become, a professional association.
Some of you in this audience will know that I have spent nearly all my professional life in Leadership Studies. That is, my primary interest has been in leadership as an area of intellectual inquiry. But as a few of you in this audience likely additionally know, in my last book, Professionalizing Leadership, I took a turn. I turned from Leadership Studies to Leadership Development, specifically to the matter of how we teach how to lead.
Why did I do this? Why after all this time did I turn to the question of how we teach how to lead? The answers are simple. First because I did not like what I saw – the unrelenting decline in trust in the leadership class, particularly in liberal democracies. Second because I did not like what I saw – the failure of too many leadership teachers, leadership administrators, leadership facilitators, leadership coaches, leadership consultants, leadership you-name- it, to raise their, our, game and to insist that other leadership experts do the same. In short, I am disturbed by our collective failure to raise the standards to which we adhere. Or, indeed, as a collective to establish any standards at all.
I will not here reiterate the argument I make in Professionalizing Leadership. In fact, I am aware that a few of you recently debated the merits – and deficits – of what I wrote. I will, however, reiterate the book’s overarching point. That unless we leadership experts take on some of the trappings of professionals – say doctors or lawyers – we endanger our reputations, which in any case are tenuous at best. This is not to say that professionalism has spared doctors, for instance, from the decline in trust, or from, as Tom Nichols put it, the death of expertise. To the contrary. The medical profession is also experiencing growing distrust. But not at the same rate as the leadership class, not even close. Moreover, while our level of trust in doctors has declined, most of us do not hesitate even now to go to a medical professional with a medical question or concern. We know that, generally, our doctors have been well educated and well trained, and that throughout their professional lives most will be required to continue to learn. And so, generally, we deem them both reasonably ethical and reasonably effective.
Leaders, in contrast – the military being a major exception to this general rule – are not required to provide even a scintilla of evidence that they have been educated to lead, or trained to lead, or developed as leaders. Moreover, they are not asked to meet any kind of requirement, or to provide any sort of certification of excellence – even of competence. Ironically, we do typically require evidence of competence from our hair dressers and truck drivers, from our dog groomers and coal miners and day care workers. We do not, though, require any such evidence from our leaders – not even from those who would aspire to ascend to the nation’s highest political office.
Would you believe that it is possible – hypothetically, theoretically, ostensibly and supposedly possible – to become President of the United States of America without any political, or government, or military experience or expertise whatsoever?!