Competence I – The Importance of Competence

Former President Donald Trump gets credit for Operation Warp Speed. The program, formally announced in May 2020, was an initiative of the U.S. government to develop, manufacture, and eventually distribute COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Remarkably, Operation Warm Speed bore fruit before Trump left office. But America’s chief executive was so fixated on losing the election to Joe Biden that on this single, but also singular success he never took the victory lap he rightfully deserved.

In every way though Trump’s leadership and management of the pandemic was miserably poor. During his administration the United States, which has just over 4 % of the world’s total population, had well over 20 % of the world’s total cases of COVID. One month after Trump left office the U.S. reached the half million mark – more than 500,000 Americans had died of the disease, most obviously during his tenure.

Now, less than two months after President Joe Biden took office, the situation has been reversed. From being one of the world’s poorest performers, the U.S. has transformed into one of the world’s best. Specifically, when ranked according to how many people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in the last couple of months, the United States is doing very well. This is by no means a done deal – the U.S. still has a long way to go before it can claim the pandemic is history. Moreover, because they live in a rich country and not in a poor one Americans have a built-in advantage.

Still, here some comparisons.

  • Israel, by this measure the world’s best performing country, has as of today already vaccinated 55.8 % of its total population.
  • As of today, the U.S. has vaccinated only 17. 5 % of its total population. However, compare this number with Germany’s. In 2020 Germany managed the pandemic splendidly well. But, to date, the government has been able to vaccinate only 5.9 % of Germans. In France, the numbers are even worse. Only 5.6 % of its total population has received even a single shot in the arm.

What accounts for this remarkable American turnaround? Setting aside the astonishing fact that the Biden administration is about to get through Congress one of the largest fiscal relief, or stimulus bills in American history, how has it happened that the president and his team have done so well on vaccine distribution in so short a time in office?  One word – competence.

Competence is the most underrated word in the leadership lexicon. Why? Two reasons. First because it is pedestrian – competence sounds tedious. Who among us wants a competent leader when we can have a heroic leader? Or an inspiring leader? Or a charismatic leader? Second, because competence sounds more in the realm of management than leadership.

I have before written about the problems that result from the constant confusion between leadership and management. Underplaying the importance of competence is one of them. No use having a leader who is heroic or inspiring or charismatic if he or she is not, also, competent.

Leaders do not themselves have to be competent. But if they are not, they must know enough about what they don’t know to assemble a competent team. A team that is both willing and able to carry out the leader’s promise, realize the leader’s plan, implement the leader’s policy. Absent these, please spare me the grand ambitions, the soaring rhetoric, and the false prophesy of the American dream.         

Old Leaders

I refer not to leaders who are old figuratively, or metaphorically. But to leaders who are old literally. To people in high places who are close to or over 75 years of age, or even over 80. There are fewer old leaders in business than in government – certainly in the United States – for which there are some obvious reasons. But there are many old leaders in governments around the world, including in the United States.

Far be it from me to say that old people in high places invariably present a problem. I am not exactly a spring chicken myself. Nor do I suggest that leaders over 75 are, by definition, ill equipped physically, psychologically, or cognitively to do the heavy lifting required of leaders, especially those in powerful posts. What I argue instead is that if too many old leaders preclude too few young leaders from replacing them, we have a problem. They range from having too many leaders who are old, tired, and rigid to having too few who are young, energetic, and adaptive. From having too many leaders who are largely ignorant of some of the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to the new technologies, to having too few leaders who are deeply informed about the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to the new technologies.

A 34-year-old woman, Arora Akanksha, who came effectively out of nowhere – she has worked at the United Nations for just four years – has declared herself a candidate to be the UN’s next secretary general. If she proceeds as expected she will be challenging Antonio Guterres, who is 71 years old. I do not especially advocate her candidacy. But is it time for the United Nations to get entirely new leadership? To be pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century? To address what this fresh-faced challenger to the existing order charges is an organization that is wasteful and adrift, patronizing, and paternalistic? Whatever her deficits, and whatever Guterres’s assets, none can question the United Nations is a grievous disappointment, light years from achieving its original high-minded ideals.  Is it possible that an unending series of old or oldish male leaders are at fault for its being so miserably stuck? It is.

The problem to which I refer has long been in evidence in Japan, said to be ruled, effectively since time immemorial, by an “old men’s club.” Is this now starting, finally, to change? Maybe, at least at the margins. Recently an online petition started by women mushroomed into what the New York Times described as a “vociferous social media campaign.” It ended dislodging 83-year-old Olympic leader, Yoshiro Mori, and, additionally, precluding him from picking another octogenarian, another man, as his successor. Mori was, of course, a symbol of a society that forever has had its most powerful and prestigious posts held by men, many if not most old, now in their 70s, 80s, and even into their 90s.

President Joe Biden is 78 years of age. Former president Trump is 74 years of age. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is 79 years of age. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi will soon be 81 years of age. And when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last year, she was still serving on the Supreme Court, at age 87.  

Time in the United States – indeed everywhere, at least in the so-called developed world – to consider term limits? Even age limits? The year of COVID-19 has been a blip – in 2020 the life expectancy of Americans slightly declined. But in the main we have been living longer and are likely to continue living even longer still. In 2021 the life expectancy for American men is over 76 years of age, and for American women over 81. Given this means many more of us will be living into our eighties and nineties, the implications for leaders are clear. We should set limits on leaders leading too long and maybe even too late.

Why Followers Follow Leaders Who Lust for Power

In the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump a large majority of Senate Republicans voted as they did in the first impeachment trial – to acquit. This time on the charge of inciting insurrection. But unlike the first time when only one Senator voted guilty, the second time seven Senate Republicans found Trump guilty as charged. Not many – but given the circumstance rather a large number.

What exactly is this circumstance? One in which most of the seven will pay a heavy political, and personal price for deviating from the party line. For example, one prominent Louisiana Republican called his fellow Republican, Bill Cassidy, who voted guilty, “a Senator without a party.” The North Carolina Republican Party Central Committee held an emergency meeting for the sole purpose of voting unanimously to censure their dissident senator, Richard Burr, who similarly had found Trump guilty as charged. And the Wyoming Republican Party censured Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the third highest ranking Republican in the House, for having had the temerity to vote to impeach the the still venerated – or is it feared? – Donald Trump.

Leaders are supposed to have a range of admirable attributes. One of these is moderation. But as former president Trump demonstrates, even out of the Oval Office, leadership and moderation go hand in hand only some of the time. Other times, they do not. In fact, sometimes leadership is exemplified by the unbridled behaviors that leaders today are instructed to shun. Moreover, followers can be and often are attracted to leaders who are extreme. To leaders who are immoderate, who blatantly and even brazenly behave in ways that are at the end of a spectrum.

          The fact that overwhelmingly Republican Senators have stuck with Trump during his time in the White House is testimony to his inordinately strong and enduring popularity. Especially, obviously, among members of his base, ordinary people who self-identify as Republicans and who continue even now to stand by their man. Which raises – or it should – the question of why. Given that Trump evidenced an overweening desire to hold on to power – even after he demonstrably lost the November election – what was it about him, what is it about him, that makes him still attractive, appealing to large numbers of the American people? Why would anyone want to follow a leader with an insatiable appetite to dominate?    

          The literature on followers, on followership, remains scant. But it is not non- existent. There is evidence to suggest why followers are drawn to leaders who want to dominate everything and everyone. This evidence applies not only to leaders in the public sector, like Trump and authoritarian counterparts such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. It applies as well to leaders in the private sector, such as, for example, the late Roger Ailes who controlled Fox News with the proverbial iron fist, and Elon Musk, who is a one-man band not just within Tesla but without.     

          Sometimes followers resist, of course, or, if they have the option, they even rebel. But other times followers freely and even eagerly remain where they are. The remain subordinate to a superior who craves power precisely because in most cases even these leaders provide benefits. Sometimes considerable benefits.

Followers are no fools. They receive, or they perceive they receive benefits both as individuals and as members of groups. Leaders satisfy our needs for safety and security. Leaders satisfy our needs for identity and community. And leaders satisfy our needs for ideological affinity, professional advancement, political connection, emotional gratification, and interpersonal satisfaction. Finally, leaders relieve us of the responsibility of running things. We pay them to protect us from harm. We pay them to make sure our paychecks are secure. We pay them to get the trains to run on time.

          Leaders who lust for power are no exception to the general rule – actually, they exemplify the general rule. Even in situations where followers are not free to leave – for example, they live in a country run by a leader who lusts for power, or they are stuck in a job in which their superior lusts for power – they are likely in some way to benefit even from having a leader hellbent on keeping control.

Since he came to power in 2013, most experts judge China’s president, Xi Jinping, to have evolved from authoritarian to totalitarian. However, during this same period Xi led his country in ways that rewarded his people with, for example, a surging economy, a strengthened military, and newfound power the world over. Similarly, Roger Ailes, the media mogul who built Fox News into a media powerhouse. By every account Ailes was inordinately difficult to work for. Intrusive and intimidating, coarse and crude, impossibly demanding and relentlessly bullying. Moreover, toward the end of his career it came out that he had tolerated a culture of sexual harassment. Yet subordinates, including many women, stayed, in this case freely, year after year, willingly subjecting themselves to Ailes’s tyrannical ways. Again, why? Because they calculated it was in their self-interest to do so. Motivated by attractions such as professional advancement, accumulation of money, proximity to power, and a glamorous industry, Ailes’s followers voluntarily engaged in a trade-off. They surrendered at least some of their integrity and independence to gamble that, in exchange, they would be rewarded personally, as well as professionally and financially.

          Counterintuitive it may be. But some followers want leaders who lust for power. Other followers accept without question leaders who lust for power. And still other followers put up with leaders who lust for power for reasons they deem good and sound. The point is that contrary to the conventional wisdom that permeates the leadership industry, followers are attracted to leaders who lust. Not all the time, but some of the time. Often enough that attention must be paid.      

“The Education of a Leader”

The title of this post is the same as the title of the review of a book written by H. W. Brands for the Wall Street Journal.* Brands was reviewing Michael Gerhardt’s new volume, Lincoln’s Mentors.  

The book is an account of Lincoln as autodidact. Crucially, Brands writes, Lincoln did not stop learning at his first inauguration. “Until the very end of his life his self-education never ceased.” Moreover, precisely because he was largely unschooled, “he benefited from not knowing what a person was supposed to learn.” Lincoln presumed, in other words, that he ought to learn everything.     

As the title of Gerhardt’s book suggests, it is focused largely on Lincoln’s mentors, five men who at various points in the president’s life served as role models, or guides, for Lincoln to emulate or follow. The point is that Lincoln remained till he died “educable.” Able to live and learn lifelong in ways that testified to his capacity to grow lifelong.

Which raises the question of what does the leadership industry do to further similar learnings over a leader’s life? The immediate response might be – well, the industry already does a lot. There are numberless leadership courses and programs, leadership centers and institutes, leadership exercises and excursions deliberately designed with adult audiences in mind. In fact, many if not most leadership initiatives are targeted precisely at people who already are leaders, or managers, intended to teach them what they do not yet know about how to lead wisely and well.

But, overwhelmingly, these are one-shot deals. Designed to catch a leader at a particular moment in time. Over a year, maybe, or a semester, or a week or a weekend. Most are designed for adult learning, yes. But most are not designed for adult learning lifelong.

What I am suggesting then is a new kind of leadership education. One designed for most leaders in that most leaders are not, like Lincoln, autodidacts. Most leaders are like most people: they profit from programs intended to teach them things they do not know because otherwise they would not know them. In this case what I am proposing is a pedagogy that is deliberately designed to be sustained.   


Leadership – Style Matters

Broadly speaking our fixation on leaders is centered on two distinct phenomena: the leader’s substance and the leader’s style. By substance I mean the content of what a leader does or tries to do. For example, to ask about President Joe Biden’s leadership on China is to ask about the content of his administration’s policy as it pertains to China. And to ask about Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s leadership on Bitcoin is to ask about the content of his company’s policy as it pertains to cryptocurrency.

Similarly, to describe Biden as moderate, collaborative, and transactional is to describe his leadership style – how he performs, how he interacts, how he gets other people to do what he wants them to do. And to describe Musk as immoderate, innovative, and transformational is to describe his leadership style – how he performs, interacts, gets other people to do what he wants them to do.      

This distinction, between substance and style, is at the heart of the recent kerfuffle – or is it a scandal? –  involving New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Scion of one of the most formidable figures ever in New York politics, the late Governor Mario Cuomo, the current governor was once thought to have it all. Brash and good looking, educated, and smart, and with a resume to match. He served in the Cabinet of President Bill Clinton, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And for over a decade he has served as governor of New York State.

Moreover, no one ever questioned his dedication or competence. He has worked hard as New York’s chief executive and has has gotten things done. In fact, notwithstanding several serious mistakes during the early months of the pandemic, spring 2020 was a time during which Governor Cuomo seem to flower. Most prominent were his daily news conferences which showed him and his team, including doctors and scientists, to best advantage. They were excellent events especially in comparison with their wretched counterparts, briefings held by the White House dominated by President Donald Trump. Trump was reliably ignorant, withholding, and narcissistic; while Cuomo was reliably informative, forthcoming, and empathetic. New Yorkers loved Cuomo’s briefings and they loved him. People across the country had Cuomo-envy.  

Remarkable then to see him – just in the last week – crash to the ground. Some of the errors of Cuomo’s ways are said to be about substance. He has been charged with fudging figures: underreporting thousands of deaths of nursing home residents. But other of his errors were about style. His leadership style now widely reported to have been, for many years, bullying. There had long been rumors about Governor Cuomo being borderline abusive. But they were random, scattered, never close to constituting a critical mass. Now though the stories are consistent, focused, and accumulated. Reports of his yelling and screaming at his administrative underlings; threatening and intimidating his legislative colleagues; and demeaning and debasing members of the press have mushroomed. Cropped up all over the place, his many longtime adversaries and even enemies, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio high on the list, rubbing their hands and licking their chops in unmitigated Schadenfreude. How delicious!

If these stories signal Governor Cuomo’s impending political demise it will not be because he fudged figures, deliberately lied – or had subordinates lie for him. It will not be, in other words, because of substance. For it is relatively easy to backtrack on substance or even, if necessary, abjectly to apologize. However, to apologize for being a miserably bad boss, an aggressive and unreliable colleague, a nasty man with a short fuse and mean temper is not so easy. Which goes to show that while substance matters style matters more.           

Trump Dumped

“He wasn’t found guilty as charged,” you say. “By a large majority Republican Senators voted to exonerate him,” you say. “After his second impeachment trial he got another pass,” you say. All true, of course. Technically, legally.

But politically is a different story. Politically the man’s finished, over, done for, passe, yesterday’s news, history, out of here. Yes, I predict that Donald J. Trump’s life in American politics is over. Forever.

I recognize of course that this is not the conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom has it that he is far from down for the count. That he has plenty of money in his kitty. That he is free to play an oversized role in Republican Party politics. And that if he so decides he can even run again for president of the United States. I further recognize that to foretell the future is foolish – that I’m on a fool’s errand.

Still, there are these ten truths:

  1. Most Americans supported convicting Trump (albeit by a narrow margin).
  2. More Republicans oppose Trump – both within the Senate and without – than would have been thought possible even a month ago.
  3. American demographics suggest that unless the Republican party broadens its base, widens its appeal to the American body politic it is unlikely to win elections at the national level.
  4. Trump is facing a boatload of legal challenges he will have to address. Each of these will be a drain not only on his reputation, but on his pocketbook.
  5. Trump is sort of old – he is in any case not young, 74 years of age, not 54. His timeframe then is shorter than it is longer.
  6. Trump is becoming tiresome. His act, once arguably entertaining, is wearing thin.
  7. Trump’s business has suffered because his brand has suffered. Trump’s brand has become in many places, both at home and abroad, an embarrassment bad for business.
  8. The historical record has been set in stone. The proceedings of this most recent of Senate impeachment trials are now a permanent part of the American experiment.
  9. Even one month in President Joe Biden has provided the American people with a critical contrast. Especially as it pertains to the pandemic, the difference in competence between this administration and the last is already amply in evidence. Moreover Biden’s approval rating nationwide stands at least for now at an impressive 62%.
  10. Though his verdict was “not guilty,” Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell gave a speech immediately subsequent that was stunningly accusatory. Whatever the charges against McConnell – for desperately trying to thread the needle – truth is he gave the nation a great political gift. In language as lacing as anyone’s, including every member of the Democratic opposition, McConnell charged Trump with behaviors tantamount to crimes.  

I think McConnell more responsible than any other single individual for dumping Trump. Here in small part is what he said.

  • “January 6th was a disgrace.”
  •  “It happened because fellow Americans had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth.”   
  • “Former President Trump’s actions preceding the riot were a disgraceful dereliction of duty.”
  • “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.”
  • “It was obvious that only President Trump could end [the attack on the Capitol]. Former aides publicly begged him to do so. Loyal allies frantically called the administration. But the president did not act swiftly. He did not do his job. He didn’t take steps so federal law could be faithfully executed and order restored. Instead, according to public reports, he watched television happily as the chaos unfolded. He kept pressing his scheme to overturn the election!” (Italics mine.)

Bad leadership is exceedingly difficult to excise. All the more reason then to acknowledge and even celebrate when it happens. When good trumps evil.

Fauci – Follower

“It was a tough situation, it really was.” The speaker was Dr. Anthony Fauci, in conversation with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on January 23. He was describing what it was like to serve during the pandemic in the administration of former president Donald Trump.

I have written before about Fauci’s role in the Trump administration, for example in a piece posted on December 5 titled, “Fauci’s Failure.”  Still, for someone with my interests – as much in followership as in leadership – it seems important to do so again now, for three reasons.

First, more than anyone else Fauci has been able to surmount the stain of having been an integral member of Trump’s pandemic posse. He not only emerged from the experience unscathed he has become the most visible member of President Joe Biden’s pandemic posse.

Second, in witnessing Trump’s second impeachment trial I cannot help but wonder yet again about his legions of followers – in this case most Republican members of the U.S. Senate. What were they thinking during the time of the Big Lie – the two-month period after the election in early November and before the insurrection in early January? What exactly was it that made them mute as the president continued, tirelessly, relentlessly, repeatedly to regurgitate a flagrant falsehood?

And third is an extended interview that Fauci gave to a reporter for the New York Times in late January, in which he discussed at length his rationale for having stayed in the service of a superior who in his own political interest undermined the public interest .

In his interview with the Times Fauci acknowledged the following:

  • That Trump invariably downplayed the bad news – of which there was plenty. Much of the time the former president simply ignored what he did not want to hear.
  • That Trump repeatedly conveyed false information – sometimes dangerously false information based on personal anecdote as opposed to scientific data.
  • That because Fauci came to be regarded as a bit of a contrarian he, his wife, and his children were harassed and threatened, subjected to attacks by right-wing extremists that went on for months.  
  • That because Fauci increasingly felt ineffective as well as endangered, he increasingly felt “anxious.” At one point in the interview, Fauci said something that happened had made him “really concerned.” At another point in the interview, he described his “anxiety as starting to escalate.” At still another point in the interview he admitted that he was “getting anxious.” He even volunteered that, “we started getting into things I felt were unfortunate and somewhat nefarious.” Interesting choice of a word by Fauci, for the definition of a “nefarious” act is one that is “wicked or criminal.”

The Times interviewer asked Fauci if he ever thought about quitting – leaving the administration in protest. To which he replied, “Never. Never. Nope.” To Fauci’s credit he admitted that his wife raised the possibility.  And, according to him, he and his wife did discuss it. But Fauci would have none of it. He wanted to stay in his post and so he justified it by saying, “I always felt that if I did walk away, the skunk at the picnic would no longer be at the picnic.”  

We will never know what would have happened had this skunk made a stink. We do know that he did not. And we do know that as of today some 468,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 – a ghastly national tragedy that is a ghastly national embarrassment.

Brady – Leader

Americans have run out of superlatives. Like Tom Brady or loathe Tom Brady – football fans come down on one side or the other – it is impossible to deny him his sensational stats.

But what has been underappreciated is Brady as a leader. He is a preternaturally gifted athlete. And he has become over time exemplary as a role model.

Brady is a man of few words and he is not prone to barking orders. Moreover, for two decades he was teamed with New England Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick, who is famously daunting in his own right. They explain why Brady’s professional authority and personal influence were long downplayed or even ignored. But once he moved from New England to Tampa Bay, there was no mistaking it. During the last year Brady put on display his prowess as a leader of men – specifically of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their players and yes, their coaches.        

Brady is a leader who has lusted, lifelong, for success. Lust is a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object or secure a circumstance. However, even after that drive has been satisfied, it does not stop. There is relief – but only briefly. Lust is lifelong – which is why Tom Brady continues, despite all the fame and fortune anyone could possibly want, to crave success. Individual success as a football player. Collective success on the football field. Global success as a world class athlete.

Brady’s lust for success largely explains not just his record as a player but his record as a leader. Unlike his talent for football, which in part is because he is a great natural athlete, his talent for leadership was not inborn. It was acquired. Acquired over time precisely because of his prowess and fearlessness.

Let’s be clear: Brady has continued to play against all logic. Logic would have dictated he retired years ago. But despite every time Brady steps onto a field he takes a risk he will get hurt, he has persisted in playing, lust trumping, as it always does, logic.

The wellspring of his leadership is not, then, Brady’s interpersonal skill. It is his skill, still, as a player. His skill in addition to his fierce ambition, his relentless determination, and his extreme work ethic. For years Brady as a leader was overshadowed by the leadership of Belichick.  But once Brady moved to Tampa Bay those days were over. Brady has shone during the last year. He led primarily by example – less by what he said than by who he was and what he did.

Brady recruited to the team invaluable assets such as his former teammate, the ostensibly retired Ron Gronkowski, who played a pivotal role in this year’s Super Bowl game. Brady lifted the Buccaneers from the middle of the pack to the top of the heap. And Brady brought to Tampa the glory that comes with the trophy – the Vince Lombardi Trophy that is awarded each year to the winning team of the National Football League’s championship game. 

Meantime this season at least the Patriots languished. They still had their longtime coach, Belichick, but they did not have their longtime quarterback, Brady. Clearly his skill as a player was missed. But seems his leadership was missed even more. Belichick found it hard to let Brady stand out as a leader. In contrast, Brady’s new coach, the Buccaneers’ Bruce Arians, has no such problem. Arians encouraged Brady to shine every which way, both as a player and as a leader. In January he said of his quarterback and his teammates, “When he talks, they listen.”    

Obviously, Brady is an exemplar of singular, supreme athletic accomplishment. Less obviously he is an exemplar of someone who has used his natural but narrow gift to become something else altogether. An outstanding leader who in his early middle age is in more ways than one a force to be reckoned with.

Leaders, Leaders, Everywhere. Where?

What is a leader? Who is a leader? How is a “leader” defined?

As every student of leadership knows, to these questions are hundreds of different answers. For the purposes of this piece I’ll keep it simple. I’ll assume – as most of us do- that leaders are people in positions of authority. For example, a CEO of a large company is a leader. But what if that CEO does not lead? More precisely, what if that CEO does not lead other than inside his or her own company? Does it suffice, in other words, for leaders of organizations in business, or in education, or in religion, or in any place else for that matter to say little or nothing about the larger context within which their organizations are located? Even if that larger context is being derailed, not to speak of despoiled?

In my book Bad Leadership, I developed a typology of bad leadership. One of the seven types of bad leadership was Insular Leadership. Insular Leadership is when “the leader and at least some followers minimize or disregard the health and welfare of ‘the other’ – that is, those outside the group or organization for which they are directly responsible.” My hypothesis was it will not suffice for leaders to lead only those who are their subordinates. Good leaders, have a larger, social responsibility. Which is why, to take an obvious example, leaders of fossil fuel companies should long ago have acknowledged, and acted on, their further obligations. Obligations that extend beyond the companies for which they are directly responsible. That extend to the preservation of the planet for the benefit of generations to come.

The syndrome of insular leadership came to mind again recently, when in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the captains of American industry finally found their tongues. They finally found the fortitude to speak up and out against President Donald Trump who during the entirety of his time in the White House had been as obviously corrupt as incompetent.

Notwithstanding the unprecedented deficits of the Trump administration, leaders in American business were mute both on his ethics and effectiveness. They had struck a Faustian bargain, agreeing to scratch his back if only he would scratch theirs. Scratch theirs by, for instance, bestowing on them corporate tax cuts from which they stood handsomely to benefit. Presumably, some among America’s corporate titans were true believers. Steven Schwartzman, for example, CEO of Blackstone, was such an ardent Trump supporter it’s possible to imagine he meant what he said.  But, based on their public records as well as subsequent statements, most did not. Most corporate leaders did what Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said they did. They subjugated their moral principles to what their perceived their business interests. But, as Walker pointed out, the compromises they made were “ultimately bad for business and bad for society.”   

No sense blaming only business leaders for being bystanders. As suggested, leaders in other places, such as in higher education, are equally to blame for their failure to be heard during a four-year period that, one could reasonably argue, led inexorably to an attempted coup. History has taught us that silence does not suffice. History has taught us that tyrants must be stopped before they start. History has taught us that leaders must lead lest they follow.

Follower Power – 2021

The argument that I made in my 2012 book, The End of Leadership, has been reconfirmed, and then reconfirmed yet again. The argument was basically this. That given the trajectory of history, and given the changes in culture and in technology, leaders were losing power and followers were gaining it.  This argument applied then as it does now to every liberal democracy. In fact, it applied then as it does now to every group or organization any place on the planet that is other than under a tyrant’s thumb.

In the month that so far is 2021, there have, for example, been these four significant displays of follower power. Of followers upending, or threatening to, leaders who seem on the surface to hold all the cards.  

  • At great risk to themselves, protesters across Russia have taken to the streets to press against Putin-the-authoritarian to support the heroic renegade, Alexei Navalny.
  • Republicans in the U.S. Senate have resolutely refused to follow their longtime leader, Mitch McConnell. As the New York Times put it, McConnell “carefully nudged open the door for his party to kick Donald J. Trump to the curb, only to find it slammed shut.”
  • Experts have quit their posts rather than be humiliated by those ostensibly in charge. Whether these are former president Trump’s legal advisors or present governor Andrew Cuomo’s medical advisors, at least some subordinates prefer to leave rather than stay if their superiors insist on being stupid and, or, stubborn.
  • Reddit’s WallStreetBets has taken the trend to which I refer to a new arena. In a direct challenge to the Wall Street elite, especially but not exclusively hedge fund managers, ordinary people are upending traditional trading models. As I write silver has surged, suddenly, to its highest price in years not because of Wall Street but because of Main Street. Because of a brigade of day-traders demanding finally to get in on the action.

“The Times They Are a-Changin’”