Americans are obsessed with leaders. Even if we hate them, we focus on them, fixate on them to the point where no one else and nothing else seems much to matter. This disposition is fueled obviously by the leadership industry, which supports our obsession and feeds off our fixation.
Leader-centrism is, however, problematic in more ways than one. It is intellectually misleading. It is practically misguided. And it is morally dispiriting. It is moral dispiriting because so few of our political leaders provide shining examples – and so few of our corporate leaders shed beacons of light. In fact, though on one level some are highly successful, on another level many of America’s most visible leaders – from Bezos to Musk to Trump – are famously if not fatally flawed. The irony, then, is that for all our fixation on those at the top, those at the top tend deeply to disappoint.
Polls prove the point. For example, more than 81% of Americans think that members of Congress behave unethically some if not most of the time. And more than 77% of Americans think the same of leaders of technology companies. Moreover, in some number of cases, yesterday’s most admired leaders have become today’s most reviled leaders. I am thinking especially of founders of America’s most fabled technology companies, who five minutes ago were being valorized and who five minutes later are being demonized. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are arguably the most striking cases in point. He once a wunderkind, she once a feminist icon, both now seriously suspect, suspected of being as greedy for power as for money.
Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, then, it is to Europe I turn to locate a good leader. Ironically but perhaps not surprisingly, then, it is to a regulator I turn to locate a good leader. To locate a leader who is, simultaneously, effective and ethical.
I refer to Margrethe Vestager, who about five years ago went from being a Danish lawmaker to head of the European Commission’s antitrust division. In this role she has morphed from political unknown to powerful muckraker. In this role her name has become inextricably linked to that of Silicon Valley. In this role she has had the singular talent and startling temerity to become big tech’s biggest nightmare.
So far, Vestager has managed to fine Google more than $9 billion for breaking antitrust laws, and obliged Apple to pay more than $14 billion for tax evasion. More to the point, in a world in which politicians along with ordinary people have been reduced to standing by and doing 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 to clamp down on companies that have, by general consensus, become much, much too big for their britches.
Relentlessly changing technologies are every leader’s promise – and every leader’s peril. Harnessing them completely is impossible – but ignoring them entirely is not an option. Moreover, the corporate behemoths who control Western technologies – notably Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, and Facebook – have been generally impervious to anyone who dared to try to take them on. Except for Margrethe Vestager.
Vestager just expanded her portfolio, one that already covers digital policy across 28 European nations. And she just signed on for another five-year-term, signaling that she will be even more active and aggressive in her second term than she was in her first. Which is precisely why as much as anyone else in the technological space, she’s a leader worth watching. It’s possible the goodness that she has evidenced so far – being simultaneously effective and ethical – will become greatness.