Bill Gates – A Leader Who Lusts, for Legacy

In our just published book, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, my coauthor and I spent ink on Bill and Melinda Gates. We categorized them as leaders who lust for legacy.

Leaders who lust have a “psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.” Leaders who lust are, then, are insatiable. As soon as they get what they want, they want more.

Leaders who lust for legacy particularly are endlessly engaged in a quest to leave an imprint. They seek to leave an imprint that is large, that will last long after they are gone, and that will, as they see it, demonstrably improve the lives of others. Both Bill Gates, and his wife Melinda, his equal partner in the two decades old Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are leaders who lust.

But Bill stands out for two reasons. First, he was a leader even in his first life. As co-founder of Microsoft, he was one of the pioneers in the information revolution. Second, in his second life he, along with Melinda, have been leaders in philanthropy. Pathbreakers in who gives money away, in how money is given away, and in how much money is given away.        

Now the pandemic has set Bill Gates apart – again. As a New York Times headline put it earlier this week, “Gates Looms Large in Quest for a Vaccine.”

Gates has been known for years for having become, through his intense, hands-on involvement with the work of the Gates Foundation, an expert in contagious disease.  Given this history, and given he was prescient about the pandemic – years ago he warned that one was coming – it is not surprising that Gates has become one of the handful of experts to whom the world turns for guidance.    

Here is why Gates is now recognized as one of the world’s most important leaders in the fight against Covid-19:

  • He has long been anyway highly visible and widely recognizable.
  • He is the world’s second richest man.
  • He is therefore able as well as willing and even eager to donate many millions in support of the hunt for a vaccine.
  • Given its history of combatting communicable diseases the Gates Foundation has an infrastructure on inoculation.
  • Gates himself has become over the years an expert on viruses.
  • He has an unrivaled global network: of leaders in governments, in industries, and in science and medicine.
  • Gates is a leader who lusts – his passion to do good is unslaked. Despite his having become in recent months a target of conspiracy theories, of resentments and suspicions worldwide, his dedication to the cause remains as fervent as fierce.

Does Gates have a god-complex? Maybe. If yes, given his lifelong track record, and his apparently strong marriage to the indominable and incorruptible Melinda, I’ll take it. God is good.    

Debbie Reynolds – Leader

          Sometimes leaders are the unlikeliest of people. Sometimes leaders appear in the unlikeliest of places. Sometimes leaders emerge in the unlikeliest of professions. Sometimes leaders have followers only after they are dead.

Actor, singer, dancer, comedienne Debbie Reynolds, who died four years ago at age 84, is such a leader. While she was alive, she was recognized as remarkable for two reasons. First, her work. She had a long, highly successful career as a Hollywood star, capped while she was still young when she played opposite the fabulous Gene Kelly, in perhaps the greatest movie musical of all time, “Singing in the Rain.”

Second, her life. Reynolds’ first husband, and the father of her two children, was 1950’s crooner and heartthrob, Eddie Fisher. Trouble was Eddie left Debbie for another woman, who happened to be the most perfectly beautiful, famously gorgeous movie star arguably of all time, Elizabeth Taylor. The fact that not long after Taylor left Fisher to begin a legendary romance of her own, with “Cleopatra” co-star, Richard Burton, who she eventually married, and later remarried, never dimmed the memory of Reynolds being left and bereft. Of course, one of her children with Fisher was a daughter, Carrie. Carrie Fisher who became world famous in her own right, forever enshrined in movie memory as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” series.

What, you might wonder, does any of this have to do with leadership? The answer: Debbie Reynolds was a pistol, a genuine original. A visionary. She had a particular passion for movie memorabilia, specifically costumes worn by great movie stars in great movies from Hollywood’s golden era. “These pieces are cultural touchstones,” she insisted, “that still carry the energy of the stars who performed in them. There is magic” she went on, “in every thread, button and bow.”

But for her cherishment of these garments – such as the indelible red shoes that Judy Garland wore in “The Wizard of Oz” – Debbie Reynolds was derided. A silly woman thought the Hollywood elite. So silly that when she offered her invaluable collection to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences she was turned down – five times. In her memoir Reynolds remembered David Geffen as saying, “Why don’t you just sell that stuff?” Which, after being so frustrated for so long, and needing or maybe just wanting the money, she finally did. She sold a large part of her treasure trove which, of course, can never again be fully reassembled.

Here though is the irony. Turns out that Debbie Reynolds was a woman ahead of her time. She saw then what others came to see only years later – how valuable and irreplaceable the pieces she had gradually, lovingly, assembled.

Set to open next April at a cost of $482 million is the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, which has now come begging. The museum’s director has asked Todd Fisher – Debbie’s son, Carrie’s brother – who still has pieces from Reynolds’ original collection, to donate them to the Museum. According to the New York Times, Fisher will oblige. He will oblige given that the Museum’s conservation studio will be named after his mother – and for as long as the Museum “properly” recognizes “her contribution.”

Good for him – better for Debbie Reynolds. Now she will forever be remembered as a leader of the movie industry. As a leader who, while she was long demeaned for her passion for preservation, understood before the rest of the Hollywood community that threads, buttons, and bows can have value. Great value. Value that transcends not only time but money.    

Prize for Kellerman’s “The Future of Followership”

This article was selected as a “Highly Commended Paper” in the 2020 Emerald Literati Awards. It was cited as “one of the most exceptional pieces of work” the editorial team saw throughout 2019.

As it is likely to be of interest to some who read my digital articles, I am providing the link here. It can also be accessed just by googling my name and the title of the piece.

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A Leader Who Lusts … Continued….

In our recently published book, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, Todd Pittinsky and I argued that a leader who lusts for power is China’s president, Xi Jinping. We define lust as a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object, or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.

One of the stories we told is Xi’s. He is not only an irresistible example of a leader who lusts for power, but an important one. In fact, I would argue that knowing this about Xi, understanding it about Xi, is of paramount importance specifically to Americans. It is of paramount importance if the United States does not want to end in a state of perpetual conflict or even crisis with China.

Evidence of Xi’s lust for power is amply provided in the book. Moreover, since Leaders Who Lust went to press the evidence has only grown.

China’s creeping crackdown on Hong Kong has accelerated to a full gallop. Five months ago, China imposed an oppressive national security law on Hong Kong. Since then have been increasingly intrusive measures, to the degree that just last week four pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted from what is effectively the city’s parliament. They were followed by some 15 other elected officials, well known members of the opposition, who resigned in gestures of solidarity and protest. All this in consequence of the authorities in China bestowing on the authorities in Hong Kong the power to remove “unpatriotic” politicians without going through the courts.

At the same time, President Xi’s longstanding dispute with Jack Ma came to a head – with Xi, of course, coming out on top. Ma is a corporate titan of international repute, co-founder and former executive chairman of Alibaba Group, a technology conglomerate that is China’s best-known corporate entity. Ma is immensely wealthy, widely influential, and famously philanthropic. Unlike Xi, a staunch communist, Ma has also developed a reputation for being, relatively at least, a capitalist, specifically he has been a vocal proponent of globalization and open markets.

Ma has long been a thorn in Xi’s side – Ma being a man who, notwithstanding his diminutive stature, has grown in Xi’s view far too big for his britches. Comes along Alibaba’s Ant Group, a financial unit slated to be an offshoot, and just about to be a $37 billion initial public offering (IPO) on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It was all a bit much for Xi, a bit too rich for Xi, who just days before the Ant Group’s slated debut made the decision to put it on hold. The IPO was held up by the Chinese government, maybe temporarily, maybe permanently.  It was in any case Xi’s decision to do so. Though he almost certainly sought some sort of consensus for a decision so major, and a cutdown of Ma so complete, some sources close to the process confirmed that only the Chinese president could have made the decision. “Nobody else would have the authority to do so.”    

Xi? A lust for power? The evidence is clear and with every passing year the more compelling. Moreover, as the definition of lust itself makes apparent, his appetite only grows with eating.

This said, it is, as already implied, the job of American policy makers to grasp this without simultaneously demonizing the the leader of some 1.35 billion Chinese people. It will do the United States no good to reduce to its lowest, simplest level a relationship that should be treated for what it is: complex and nuanced as opposed to, necessarily, adversarial to the point of ineluctably hostile.  

“The World’s Most Dangerous Man”

The title of this blog is taken from the subtitle of a book recently written by Mary Trump. She is by training a clinical psychologist. She is also a niece of President Donald Trump – the daughter of his older brother, Fred Jr, who died in 1981, of alcoholism, at age 42. Essentially Mary Trump argues or, better, concludes, that because her uncle’s “pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often unpredictable,” he poses a real and present danger to America. Which, if you take her point, would certainly not have ended with his defeat at the polls on November 3rd.  Trump might even be more of a menace now as a wounded animal than he was before.

In my previous post I predicted among other things that Trump would never concede that he lost the election. But I did not say much about what he might do during what we should think of as the American interregnum: the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day, on January 20th. Some of what Trump has already done was as good as foreseen. For example, his tweeting and then retweeting about how the election was rigged, and his firing one and then another of his underlings for not being slavishly loyal.

It could be argued though, and I do, that gestures such as these are child’s play, typical of Trump. In a different category is the president’s refusal so far to permit an orderly transition to the next administration which, if it persists, could have serious long-term consequences. Also in a different category is the president’s capacity to make mischief – to continue to break china by upending norms and traditions, by stirring up angers and resentments, by disrupting and even subverting the presidency of Joe Biden.   

Here’s a dynamic to watch: the president’s relationship to those parts of his base that are the most fervently and even feverishly devoted. More than 72 million Americans voted for Trump to have a second term. For the sake of this exercise let’s say that 20% of these are people who, if Trump held a rally in a one or two hundred-mile radius would make it a point to attend. They would go wearing those red MAGA caps and not wearing masks, and they would shout loud and clear Trump’s favorite refrains, from “Lock her up, lock her up, lock her up!” to “Fire Fauci, fire Fauci, fire Fauci!”

Which raises two questions: First, how will Trump want to harness the energies of his most ardent adherents? Second, how will Trump’s most ardent adherents react to what Trump tells them to do?

We’re talking millions of people here. Some will be willing to “stand back and stand by,” as Trump recently instructed the Proud Boys. All will be hungry to hear whatever it is that their leader has to say.    

Trump’s Exit

Someone in my line of work should never ever predict the future. Foolhardy. Particularly to predict in a way that’s preserved. That’s on paper so to speak – as opposed to a casual remark.

Still… impossible for me to resist making these twelve bets.

  • President Donald Trump will lose his bid to be reelected for a second term.
  • President Donald Trump will take the matter to court. Over and over, and over again.
  • President Donald Trump will lose all his consequential electoral litigations.
  • President Donald Trump will never accept that he has lost the 2020 election.
  • President Donald Trump will do whatever he can to preserve himself in his post, no matter the collateral damage.
  • President Donald Trump will lead his followers to the brink of the precipice – at which point some but not all will jump.      
  • President Donald Trump will forever insist that the election was stolen.  
  • President Donald Trump will not get out of the White House in any traditional way.  
  • President Donald Trump might have to be pried from the White House.
  • President Donald Trump is more likely to quit the White House weeks before he is legally obliged (on January 20, 2021).
  • President Donald Trump will finish out his tenure as president not in Washington but in Palm Beach or, if he decides to quit the country, at his golf resort in Scotland.   
  • Donald Trump will have a hold on the American psyche so long as there is an American psyche.

Trump Bad Leader/Trump Good Leader/Trump Great Leader

In my book written years ago, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters, I made a distinction that to this day I find useful. I defined good/bad leadership along two different axes.

The first was along a spectrum that ran from ethical to unethical. The second was along a spectrum that ran from effective to ineffective. In other words, it was possible for a leader to be:

  • Ethical and effective.
  • Unethical and ineffective.
  • Ethical but ineffective.
  • Effective but unethical.

President Donald Trump has illustrated the utility of these distinctions. Because in some ways he has been a bad leader, in other ways he has been a good leader, and in still other ways he has been a great, as in exceptional, leader.

First, how, during the last four years, has Trump been a bad leader? He has been unethical – so unethical that he has been at one end of the axis that runs from ethical to unethical. Let me count some of the ways.

  • He has been chronically corrupt.
  • He has been chronically dishonest.
  • He has been chronically divisive.
  • He has been chronically defensive.
  • He has been chronically disruptive.
  • He has been chronically abusive.
  • He has been chronically bigoted.
  • He has been chronically crass.

How has President Trump fared on the other axis, the one that runs from effective to ineffective? Here the answer is more mixed.     

  • He has been woefully ineffective as it pertained to the pandemic.
  • He has been quite ineffective as it pertained to domestic policy.
  • He has been quite ineffective as it pertained to foreign policy.

He has been, however, exceptionally effective at accomplishing much of what he wanted and intended.

Goals Trump set and successfully reached include:

  • He gained and maintained a sizeable base of fervently dedicated and fiercely loyal followers.
  • Re refashioned the Supreme Court.
  • He took over the Republican Party.
  • He reduced Republican Senators to being servile and supine.
  • He turned Fox News into a presidential puppet.
  • He politicized the civil service.
  • He diminished expertise.
  • He demonized the opposition.
  • He demoralized the intelligence community.
  • He alienated America’s allies.
  • He shattered norms at home – and abroad.

Final verdict: In some ways Trump has been a bad leader. But, in other ways, Trump has been a good leader – good as in effective. And, again, in still other ways he has been a great leader – a leader who has been inordinately, atypically effective. By this I mean that President Donald Trump’s imprint on America has been deep. Whatever happens tomorrow, Election Day 2020, his presidency will go down in American history as one of the most consequential ever. If liberal democracy trumps Trump, it will be remembered by many of his contemporaries as a close call.      

Leaders, Leaders, Everywhere?

After a hiatus, this column will now resume on a regular basis. My new book, with Todd Pittinsky – Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy – was published on October 29 by Cambridge University Press.  My next book, title to be later revealed, will be published by Cambridge University Press next year.   

I have no idea what will happen if this happens. Specifically, I have no idea what other American leaders will do if it comes to pass that the president of the United States violates, as he has repeatedly threatened to do, the normal electoral order. For months President Trump has declared that unless the presidential election is a clear win for him, on November 3rd, or maybe early on the morning of the 4th, he will consider the results rigged.   

Which raises the question of what other American leaders will do if the leader-in-chief launches an attack on the American political system. We already know, or at least have good reason to believe, that we cannot count on Congress, specifically the Republican controlled Senate, to protect us. We similarly already know, or at least have good reason to believe, that the American military is highly unlikely in any way to intervene. No less than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milley, has already made as clear as he reasonably can that the American military would be reluctant, if not prepared to refuse, to intrude on what it determined a political, a civilian, dispute. This leaves one group of prominent American leaders from whom we so far have heard nearly nothing. Leaders of American business – especially leaders who control the levers of corporate power.

Historically they have preferred to stand aside, stay separate and apart from the political fray. Most, not all, but most, have deemed it not in their personal or professional interest to take a stand. And so, they have not. This past week, after Trump claimed that it would be “totally inappropriate” for election officials to keep tallying ballots after Election Day, business leaders did join in an anodyne statement that urged all Americans to support the process and the American tradition of free and fair elections.

But while some members of the elite will be familiar with their statement, effectively no one else is. By and large the American people have no idea that leaders of American business have taken even a careful, politically neutral, procedural stand.

Which is fine if on December 4th the election has been settled to widespread satisfaction. But, if it is not, leaders in American business cannot in good conscience continue to hide behind the cloak of their corporate curtain.