No Leadership – Even on Low Hanging Fruit

In Great Britain are no laws that allow death with dignity. Assisted dying, or euthanasia, is illegal. This remains the case though other, similar countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands have such laws on the books. This also remains the case despite repeated polling demonstrating that public support in Britain for allowing dignity in dying is overwhelming.

The situation in the US is not as bad, though it is not nearly what it should be. Should be if you believe in majority rule. Almost three-quarters of Americans say that euthanasia should be legal. But only ten states, twenty percent of states, have any legislation allowing death with dignity.

Though the issue is more complex and, therefore, more controversial, there are some parallels to legislation on gun control. In the United States the issue in general remains highly divisive. But even in this country it is not divisive in every aspect. Some gun control laws have never been enacted even though they are supported by large majorities of Americans. For example, 85% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats favor preventing those with mental illnesses from purchasing guns. Similarly, 70% of Republicans and 92% of Democrats support passing a law that would subject private gun sales, and gun show sales to background checks. Finally, majorities in both parties oppose allowing people to carry concealed firearms without a permit.

So, what do I mean by “no leadership – even on low hanging fruit”? I mean leadership is hard to come by these days. These are fractious times, not just in the United States but in liberal democracies everywhere. This makes it especially important that leaders demonstrate they can get some things done. Low hanging fruit – issues on which there is, fortuitously, unusually, wide agreement – would seem obvious targets of accomplishment.

Whistleblower Week!

Last week was a hell of a week for whistleblowers! A banner week … unless it was you in their line of fire, you a target of their ire.

Are there more now than there used to be – or am I imagining it? Imaging more whistleblowers coming out of the woodwork. Imagining more good followers daring to speak out against more bad leaders. Imaging more apparently ordinary people willing to take the risk of speaking up and speaking out.

Of course, not every whistleblower is justified. Every now and then whistleblowers blow for insufficient reason. But in the main they are women and men who risk being professionally and sometimes even personally crucified for daring to speak truth not to power, but about power.

Last week’s single most striking whistleblower – she got an enormous media attention – was of course Frances Haugen. Haugen pulled the plug, or tried her level best to, on Facebook. Specifically on her erstwhile leader, her erstwhile employer, Mark Zuckerberg. Haugen shared documents with the Wall Street Journal, and with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and with Congress that, she claimed, were proof Facebook prioritized profits over people.   

Not quite as attention-getting but a very, very big story nonetheless was the release of the so-called Pandora Papers. What are they? They are nearly 12 million documents leaked by good followers to reveal for the world to see the greed, the legalized corruption, of bad leaders. These followers mainly are journalists; and these leaders mainly are top dogs including former and current presidents and prime ministers. I should add we’re not talking here garden variety corruption. We’re talking corruption on what Brooke Harrington, writing in the New York Times, described as being on “an almost unimaginably vast scale.”

Finally – for now – the women of the National Women’s Soccer League who put on public display their simmering rage at the imbalance of power. It is the women obviously who play they game. But they are powerless. Specifically, they are powerless against the men, the team owners, the executives, and the coaches, all of whom are powerful. The men control the game, and the men control the money. Hence the men control the women. Last week the women decided they had had it. They were fed up. On Wednesday night they halted several games at the six-minute mark, so they could stand together, arms linked, in silent protest. “We have hit rock bottom and we are going to fight as hard as we need to, as hard as we can, for everything we deserve and need,” said one of the players. “We won’t be silent anymore.”  

In Monday’s post I juxtaposed whistleblowers against enablers. Enablers I described as “followers who allow or even encourage their leaders to engage in, and then to persist in, behaviors that are destructive.” * Whistleblowers, in contrast, are “followers who try to stop their leaders from being bad by publicly exposing their noxious – as in illegal, or abusive, or unsafe – behaviors.” Which raises the question of what motivates whistleblowers? What makes the powerless risk taking on the powerful? Haugen reportedly decided to go public, to blow the whistle, only in September. She explained her decision this way: “I just don’t want to agonize over what I didn’t do for the rest of my life. Compared to that, anything else just doesn’t seem that bad.”   

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*The definition of enabler is from my latest book, The Enablers: How Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Tom Brady… on Leadership

Brady is one of the main characters in the book I recently wrote with Todd Pittinsky, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. Brady, we found, was a leader whose lust for success particularly was so visceral, so palpable, so unquenchable as to singlehandedly explain his preternatural accomplishments.

I was interested therefore to read that Brady himself thinks leadership the single most important explicator for his success on the field. “What,” he was asked a couple of weeks ago by the Wall Street Journal, is the “one essential talent for a quarterback?” At first he gave a one-word answer: “Leadership.”

Then he continued, “Leadership is not a physical trait; it’s more of a mental/emotional trait. You know, I’m the one calling the plays. If I lack any confidence [my teammates] see right through it.”

In other words, though he did not frame it as we did in the book, Brady clearly considers his lust for success to be contagious. He has it – and he gives it to his teammates.  No wonder where he goes success follows.

Followers – the Spectrum, from Whistleblower to Enabler

I became as interested in followers as in leaders in the early aughts, when I wrote two books, one titled Bad Leadership, the other Followership. The path taken continued to another book, four years later, in 2012, The End of Leadership. Notwithstanding my other writings in between, my most recent publication, another book, this one titled, The Enablers, sustains what is by now a running theme: That followers have always been more important than the leadership industry has given them credit for; and that for various reasons – above all changing cultures and technologies – they are more important now than they have ever been before.

Anyone familiar with my work knows this is what I think. They would equally know that I define followers not by what they do, but by how they are ranked. By where they fit into whatever the relevant hierarchy – social, political, economic, organizational, educational, cultural, religious, military, you get the point. In other words, followers do not necessarily follow. Sometimes they do, mostly they do; but sometimes they do not.  Followers do though, by definition, at least mine, rank low on the hierarchy that particularly pertains or, at least, they rank lower on this hierarchy than those in formal leadership roles.

This is not to say that all leaders are formal leaders, that they are clearly identified as such. Some leaders are informal leaders, defined by what they do, not by their position or status, or role or credential. Informal leaders need only to stand out to be identified as such, so it is apparent who is leading and who is following. In fact, all a person needs to be a leader, either formal or informal, is a single follower.

Still, most of the time, in common parlance, the leader is someone of relatively or even very high rank, which is why labeling a follower someone who is of lower rank is not only logical but economical. The point is that semantics matter. Our failure to agree – if only for a particular purpose or a limited time – on what is a “follower” can do us in. Followers are that important.

For this reason, this blog – my intermittent posts – will be as dedicated in the future to followers as to leaders.

Which brings me to today’s point. Like leaders, followers come in different shapes and sizes, and they play different roles. One type of follower is the whistleblower.

  • Whistleblowers are followers who try to stop their leaders from being bad by publicly exposing their noxious – as in illegal, or abusive, or unsafe – behaviors.  

Another type of follower is the enabler.

  • Enablers are followers who allow or even encourage their leaders to engage in, and then to persist in, behaviors that are destructive.

Whistleblowers are followers in that they try to stop bad behaviors in their superiors, that is, in those who have more power, authority and influence than they. Enablers are followers in that they allow, encourage, even support bad behaviors in those who are their superiors, that is, in those who have more power, authority, and influence than they.

Whistleblowers and enablers are, then, at the opposite ends of a spectrum. Which is why followers who are whistleblowers should be admired and protected – and followers who are enablers should be derided and disabled.

Merkel’s Greatest Achievement

National elections in Germany were held on Sunday. But Angela Merkel will continue to serve as chancellor until the next government can be formed, and her successor is named.

Because Merkel led Germany and even Europe for nearly sixteen years, her imminent retirement was widely covered not only within Germany but without. Journalists and pundits the world over assessed her successes and failures, generally concluding that while she did not walk on water, she was in most ways an ethical and effective leader whose presence on the global stage will be missed.

What could not, however, be known until after the election was over was the decline in popularity of Germany’s far right party, the AfD (Alternative for Germany).  To be clear, the AfD consolidated its strength in East Germany, so by no means should it be relegated to the ash heap of history. Still, the party, which first rose to prominence in 2015 on an anti-immigration ticket, dropped in popularity overall, securing this time around just over 10% of the national vote.

Merkel’s greatest achievement, then, is that she pulled off a hat trick.

  • In 2015, under her leadership, some 1.2 million immigrants, most from Syria, were allowed entry into Germany. Since then the overwhelming majority have been successfully integrated into German society.
  • Notwithstanding this enormous influx, and notwithstanding what in its wake was the considerable appeal of the right-wing AfD, the party has failed, so far at least, to continued to gain traction.
  •  Merkel’s personal and political popularity has held firm. Despite her doing, or maybe because of her doing, what no other world leader has dared to do, allowed in, welcomed in, so many immigrants essentially at a single stroke, her popularity has held at home as well as abroad.

In an era in which suspicion of “the other,” even hatred of “the other,” has been so strong a political force, certainly in the West, Merkel’s leadership on the issue of immigration has nowhere been rivaled. Not even close.   

Dictatorial Leadership – The Insidiousness of Incrementalism

In human history not a single dictatorial leader has been content to remain in place. Without exception such leaders are hellbent on becoming even more completely controlling than they already are.

No need though to go back in time. We see it now. Each of us is eyewitness to this inevitable trajectory.    

Since protests in Russia in 2011 and 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin gradually clamped down on his opponents. Moreover, ahead of today’s parliamentary elections the pace of his crushing his critics accelerated. For months, Putin’s most prominent opponent, Alexei Navalny, has been behind bars. And the others of Putin’s opposition have faced unprecedented persecution – unprecedented at least for many decades.

Like Russia and before it the Soviet Union, China has no experience with liberal democracy. Additionally, both have had extensive experience with Communist Parties, which have been without exception strongly centralized. Like Russia China, then, provides rich soil for dictators determined to become more dictatorial.   

In recent months hardly a week has gone by, hardly a day has gone by, without news of yet another sort of clampdown by Chinese President – and General Secretary of the Communist Party, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission – Xi Jinping. In no uncertain terms he has demonstrated his lust for power. His determination to become totalitarian. As totalitarian a Chinese leader as any since Mao Zedong.   

By now no aspect of Chinese society has been left untouched by Xi and his Chinese Communist Party. Not politics, not business, not the military, not technology, not territory, not art or culture. Xi’s fingerprints are virtually everywhere – his increasingly iron grip is on virtually everyone.  

I could go on. But the point of this piece is just that left unchecked bad leadership persists. And that, step by step by step, in time it gets worse.

Leadership in the Military – II

Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported in their new book, Peril, that just before and after the 2020 election, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, reached out to his Chinese counterpart to assure him about the stability of the United States. The news that this was done without the approval of the commander in chief, President Donald Trump, or Trump’s even knowing the calls had taken place, was met with appreciation among Democrats and laceration among Republicans.

While what Milley did was probably not in violation of the Constitution, he did in this instance deviate from the norm. He violated the principal of civilian control of the military. One might, then, reasonably argue, as many Republicans have, that Milley should be reprimanded or even fired. Or one might take a different perspective, which is to say that on rare occasions rules that are entrenched and even enshrined should be broken.

What General Milley did cannot be understood separate and apart from the context within which he did it. Nor can it be understood separate and apart from his own experience of President Trump. Nor cannot it be understood separate and apart from an understanding of what constitutes good and bad leadership – and good and bad followership.

In brief:

  • The context that was the White House in the weeks and months before and after the 2020 election was chaotic and unreliable. Moreover, the president himself was erratic and unstable.
  • The general had a previous encounter with the president in which the former openly took on the latter. In June 2020 Trump obliged Milley to be part of a photo op preceded by the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the area of peaceful protesters. Immediately after the photo op was over, Milley was deeply embarrassed – both by the ugly episode and by his participation in it. “I should not have been there,” he said a short time later. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from.”  
  • Questions: What does a good follower do when he or she is in the grip of a bad leader, a very bad leader? Fall into line? Follow orders? Or refuse to fall into line? Refuse to follow orders?

I do not mean to minimize what could be a difficult moral dilemma with considerable or even severe consequences. Still, if “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” can Milley be fairly faulted for doing something?  

Leadership in the American Military – I

New York Times prize-winning columnist Tom Friedman just wrote a piece in which he lamented the decline of American pluralism.* It’s a familiar refrain. To his credit, however, Friedman does something somewhat more novel. He singles out as a model of principled pluralism the American military. The American military, he writes, “is our last great carrier of pluralism at a time when more and more civilian politicians are opting for cheap tribalism.”

“Leadership matters,” Friedman adds, noting that good leadership in the military explains why “the ethic of pluralism and teamwork shown by many of our men and women in uniform reduces the tribal divisions within the armed forces.” Which raises this question: what accounts for so many good leaders among members of the military and so many bad leaders among our elected officials?

It happens this is precisely this question I addressed in my 2018 book, Professionalizing Leadership. Anyone interested in my argument can read the book. Here I will simply say that what I wrote then applies now:

Learning to lead in the American military is unlike learning to lead anywhere else in America. Learning to lead in the American military is better. Learning to lead in the American military is harder, broader, deeper, and richer. And it is longer. In the American military learning to lead lasts a lifetime.  

Why other American institutions – including institutions of higher education – continue to refuse to take a page out of the military’s playbook, specifically as it pertains to leadership, remains a mystery to me. And a tragedy. It’s a crying shame that among civilians learning how to lead remains largely in the hands of amateurs while professionals, members of the U. S. military, are so close at hand.   

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Leaders Escape Scrutiny

Who are these leaders? Whose scrutiny are they escaping? And what are they getting away with?  

  • They are corporate titans – leaders of U.S. businesses. Not all, but many if not most.
  • They are escaping our scrutiny – the scrutiny of the media, hence of the American people.
  • They are getting away with compensation packages so humungous they’re outrageous.
  • And… they they are getting away with inordinately generous tax breaks that favor the already favored few.

The mantra of anger over inequality is familiar. Since the 1970s income disparities have soared in the United States – and they continue to do so. Nowhere is this as much in evidence as in the yawning gap between CEO pay and the pay of average workers. Between 1978 and 2018 CEO compensation grew 940%. During this same span typical worker compensation rose by only 12 %.

Even during the pandemic, the inequities were further exacerbated. In 2020 CEO pay jumped 14.1 %, while median workers got raises of only 1.9 %. According to the Economic Policy Institute this enormous disparity in compensation has been the “major [single] contributor to rising inequality.”

Nor does the U.S. tax code help. It too famously favors the rich over the rest, the ultra-wealthy especially taking advantage of laws that allow them dramatically to lower, sometimes to zero, what they owe. Berkshire Hathaway’s legendary CEO, Warren Buffett, has been one of the few at the top publicly to point to the discrepancies, having lamented out loud that on a percentage basis he pays less in taxes than his secretary.

Every year the numbers boggle the mind. Even setting aside leaders whose pay packages are in the stratosphere – Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos among them – are those whose total compensation, including salary, stock grants, bonuses, and other benefits, is enormous. Simply in terms of straight salary the numbers can be huge, for example General Electric’s Larry Culp earns over $72 million a year , and Nike’s John Donahoe II over $53 million. Moreover, these figures are misleading. In 2020 Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, had a total pay package of “only” $31.1 million. But given he has been top dog for 15 years – and appears, I might add, to be going nowhere – imagine the immense wealth he has accumulated over time.  

Shareholder protests over extravagant executive pay have risen in recent years, more so in Europe than in the United States. But even their cumulative impact has been low, so far only a feeble attempt to stem a still rising tide. Corporate cultures are like other cultures: unless they are disrupted, they become entrenched. It is this more than anything else that explains the habit of those who make the decisions. The habit of boards, their coteries of consultants, institutional investors and others who vote like automatons to “pay for performance.” Never mind that performance – even assuming it is outstanding – is already being amply rewarded. It is assumed without question that greater rewards will lead to still better performance – that is, better performance for shareholders.

All of which raises the question of how this happened. Why is it that the trend of so lavishly rewarding executives, and so poorly, certainly comparatively, compensating average workers has persisted? And why with every passing year is it still further exacerbated? The answers to questions like these are clearly complex – multifaceted and multilayered. They include, for example, the rise of globalism and the decline of the union movement.

But there is another answer I have yet to hear anyone else provide. It is anonymity and its fraternal twin – obscurity.  While America’s political leaders are by and large, certainly the most prominent among them, relatively well known, America’s corporate leaders are not. We tend to be somewhat familiar with our mayors, our senators, and representatives, and of course with the American president. This makes them easy to see and to hold to account – at least they are being scrutinized.

To be clear, Americans’ level of political literacy is not high. Many of us do not know even the names of our elected officials, save perhaps the likes of former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. But, still, many more Americans know who they are than know the CEO of IBM, or Salesforce, or Ford, or Target, or Proctor & Gamble, or General Dynamics, or Warner Media, or Boeing, or Exxon, or Intel, or for that matter Blackrock or Blackstone. We might’ve heard of Tim Cook (CEO of Apple) or of Mary Barra (CEO of General Motors). Or not. The point is that with very few exceptions even immensely wealthy chief executive officers remain unknown to the American public. Thus they are able to revel in their existing wealth and to keep accruing more wealth sight unseen. This cannot be good. It cannot be good that we cannot even identify who is escaping public scrutiny. Who is hording many millions and some even billions while avoiding paying their fair share of taxes – while at the same time allowing numberless Americans to languish at or just above the poverty line.  

Just as the mainstream American media presume they are responsible for covering the people and policies that populate American politics, they should presume the same for the people and policies that populate American business. No reason in the world to hold government leaders responsible for what happens in America while corporate leaders get off scot-free. High time to name names. To call out leaders who are exorbitantly, excessively, even obscenely rich but not, alas, famous.

A Leader Who Lusted Who Lost

In our book, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, Todd Pittinsky and I told the story of George Soros. Soros was born a Hungarian Jew to a family that managed through its wealth and its wile to survive the Second World War. After being educated in England and the United States, Soros settled in the latter, where he went on make a fortune in financial markets. In time he established his primary philanthropy, the Open Society Foundation, which today is the second largest private charitable foundation in the United States.

Leaders like Soros, who lust for legacy – who long, effectively lifelong, to leave an imprint that is permanent – risk being disappointed. In most cases they are not. Usually, their vision is buttressed by enormous resources, sometimes including great wealth, which enabled the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, to perform wonders in the field of health care.

Soros though has been a gambler. He gambled with his money, and he gambled on what he would do with his money. His billions, he decided years ago, would be spent on trying to make the world a better place not medically but politically. Not according to the rules of science, but the rules of human nature. In short, Soros gambled on the proposition that his money could contribute significantly to transforming societies, especially those in East Europe, from authoritarianism to liberalism. From fascism and communism to democracy.

I never met Soros. But I think I can assume it has been a heartbreak for him to see countries such as his own native Hungary move from the center straight back to the right, the far right. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in power for over a decade, moved steadily and swiftly toward establishing a jingoistic dictatorship. Moreover, he had the unmitigated gall to attack Soros personally. The right-wing prime minister shamelessly branded the left-leaning liberal an all-powerful globalist and money-hungry Jew. A money-hungry Jew who plotted to flood Hungary with Muslim immigrants, and to undermine its Christian heritage.

Soros is now 91. He is unlikely to live long enough to see the pendulum again swing, from the right back safely and securely to the center. This explains in good part the announcement just made by the Open Society Foundation that it was transforming, that “the nature of many [of its] partnerships will shift.” To be clear, the Foundation has supported countless causes in addition to the one here described, not only abroad but at home, in the United States. But no doubt what Soros most wanted in his life was to see Europe democratic and liberal, not only West Europe but East Europe. Into this quest he poured himself as well as his money. But it was not to be – at least not in his lifetime.       

Under intense pressure from Orban’s government, in 2018 the Open Society Foundation was obliged to close its office in Budapest. An ironic, painful coda to the legacy of a leader who lusted and lost.