Leaders – Naming Names

When I was a graduate student at Yale University – in the prehistoric age, the 1970s – there was no such thing as leadership studies. In fact, the words “leader” and “leadership” were not even in my department’s lexicon. Business schools covered “executives” and “managers,” and “management” was one of their important areas of study. But my field, political science, abjured the idea that individuals could and sometimes did make a big difference.    

Even back then I wondered why this was the case, when it seemed obvious that from time to time at least were “great men” – I’m leaving the semantics aside – who had a great impact on how history was made. More specifically, they were as, or even more responsible for what happened than anyone else or anything else.

I write this as someone who has spent years focusing not only on the importance of leaders but of followers. And not only on the importance of leaders and followers but of the contexts within which they’re located. Still, our misguided and mistaken aversion to personalizing politics, specifically to ascribing to one individual the power to determine outcomes persists. It’s almost weird, as if to bestow such explanatory power on one person is unsettling.     

I was glad, therefore, to see that Robert Kagan, one of our shrewdest observers of the so-called world order, made the point in his recent piece in Foreign Affairs* He writes about how the world is periodically exploded by “the brutal realities of international existence” – as it was when Putin invaded Ukraine.  

Kagan:

Events have forced Americans to see the world for what it is, and it is not the neat and rational place that the theorists have posited. None of the great powers behave as the realists suggest, guided by rational judgments about maximum security. Like great powers in the past, they act out of beliefs and passions, angers, and resentments. There are no separate “state” interests, only the interests and beliefs of the people who inhabit and rule states.” (Bolding mine.)

It’s clearly hard for us to attribute to a few individuals – leaders – wretched behaviors that can wreck our lives. It’s so much easier, for example, to say that “Boeing” was responsible for two fatal crashes of its 737 MAX airliners (one in 2018 and one in 2019) than to hold accountable the CEO at the time (Dennis Muilenburg) along with some of his underlings.

“Boeing” though is an abstraction. It is company. Similarly, Russia is an abstraction. It is a country. But… abstractions don’t make decisions. Companies don’t make decisions. Countries don’t make decisions. People do. Leaders do. So let’s get real. Let’s name names. Not just some of the time. All the time.

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*In the January/February 2023 issue.

Classic Case of Callous Leadership

It is said of Donald Trump that even he – blusterous, ostensibly manly braggard that he is – hated telling people face to face they were being laid off. Fired. Canned. Sacked. Dismissed. Why? For several good and obvious reasons: delivering bad news is unpleasant; delivering bad news is unpredictable; delivering bad news is time consuming; and sometimes, ofttimes, delivering bad news reflects badly not particularly on the receiver but on the deliverer.

Easy enough then to understand why in recent months countless employers told countless employees – employees in the hundreds of thousands – that their services were no longer necessary not in person but by email. So much easier for a superior to deliver such rotten news to a subordinate not face-to-face but online. So much less messy!

But imagine that you’ve worked at a company, for a company, for twenty years – or for that matter twenty months – and you discover from one moment to the next, electronically as opposed to personally, that your life as you knew it was over. That your means of support and your professional identity had just been summarily terminated. Who do you talk to and when? Who do you question and when? Who do you rail against and when? Who do you cry in front of and when? The question of “who” is urgent now because so many people now work remotely. So when they get bad news by e mail it’s not just they don’t have their managers to talk to, they don’t have anyone to talk to, at least not face to face. For likely as not when they found out they were sacked they were alone.

By now it’s well known that in recent months many companies, especially but not exclusively in the tech industry, told large numbers of people they were being laid off by e mailing them. How efficient. How deficient. The word “inhumane” comes to mind – which might seem hyperbolic but you get my point. My point is that telling someone that by the time they finished reading their emails they already are out of a job is other than humane, which makes it inhumane.

In my book, Bad Leadership, I described a certain type of bad leader as callous. Callous leaders are “uncaring or unkind.” They ignore or discount “the needs, wants, and wishes” particularly of their subordinates. Leaders who fire by e mail fall into this category – they are callous. Not only are they dismissing someone, presumably permanently, they are doing so out of hand, easily and efficiently as opposed to carefully and considerately.   

What recourse do followers (employees) have for leaders (employers) who are callous? Acting alone is not the answer. Acting in tandem is.

Unions anyone?

Leaders as Gladiators – Drama at Disney

For months if not years we’ve been obsessed with Elon Musk. Of all America’s corporate leaders, it’s this particular genius and narcissist on whom we fixate.

But, interestingly, ironically, the characters at Disney are far more compelling. There’s a gaggle of them. A gaggle of leaders as gladiators, each taking on the other in a years-long fight for supremacy at one of America’s most storied companies.

The Cast

  • Bob Iger. By all accounts Iger is a genial man long known as one of America’s most respected and successful corporate executives. He was CEO of Disney from 2005 to 2020. But, instead of slipping quietly into permanent retirement, just a couple of years after he stepped down Iger was asked by the board to retake the reins. To which he immeidately if not eagerly replied yes. So, for now, Bob Iger is, again, chief executive officer of the Walt Disney Company.
  • Bob Chapek. During his long tenure, Iger did almost everything right. One thing he did not however do right, or smart, was to select a successor. After months of uncertainty Bob Chapek finally took over from Iger in February 2020. To say that Chapek’s time at the top of Disney was troubled is to understate it. Chapek was a failure at public relations; he became embroiled in political controversy; and he was less than stellar at running the business. After less than three years as Disney’s chief executive officer, late last year, Disney’s board gave Chapek the boot.
  • Ron DeSantis. DeSantis is governor of Florida. Florida is the state in which Disney has one of its most iconic holdings, Walt Disney World Resort. DeSantis, a top Republican presidential contender, decided it was in his political interest to take on Disney, specifically Chapek, especially but not exclusively in the culture wars over race, gender identity, and abortion. Chapek did not, shall we say, handle it well, and when Iger returned tensions between the governor and the company diminished. But make no mistake: DeSantis enjoys toying with Disney.
  • Abigail Disney. Walt Disney was Abigail’s great uncle, and she remains a Disney shareholder. Of itself this means little. But she has parlayed her last name and her strong political passions into the role of corporate gadfly. She rose to prominence in 2019 when she publicly took on CEO Bob Iger’s $66 million pay package. Since then, she has continued to play the self-appointed but nevertheless intermittently effective role of left-leaning activist, who says things like, “corporate boards are populated by people who are CEOs or would like someday to be CEOs and are loyal to the class they … identify with.” At Disney, Abigail Disney has no formal power or authority. But she does have influence, not a lot, but some.
  • Nelson Peltz. Disney shares plummeted last year. Add to that the fiasco at the top – Chapek dumped, Iger reinstalled – and you have a company ripe for the picking. Enter Peltz, one of America’s best known and most aggressive corporate activists, who last week embarked on a very public proxy fight with Disney’s management. Quickly it got ugly. Peltz insisted that he be given a seat on Disney’s board; Disney responded that Peltz has “no track record” with large media companies and no way merits the seat he publicly covets. Peltz reminded everyone who was anyone that shareholder value at Disney had tanked. Disney defended its past acquisitions and touted its future cost-cutting and succession planning.

Think of it! Bob Iger humiliated Bob Chapek. Bob Chapek fought with Ron DeSantis. Ron DeSantis ripped into Walt Disney. Abigail Disney assailed the lot at the top. And now Nelson Peltz is dragging Mickey and Minnie through the mud. Not a pretty picture. But if you’re interested in corporate America, and gripped by leaders as gladiators, it’s compelling viewing.

The End of Leadership – Changes in Technology. And in Culture. And in History

This post is in response to a recent editorial in the New York Times by Richard Pildes.* Pildes’s piece was an analysis of why the Republican Party’s right wing now has so much power – as evidenced by the many rounds of nasty balloting before House Republicans finally settled on Kevin McCarthy as Speaker.

Pildes explained why we are where we are by the “revolutions in communications and technology that have transformed our democracy.” He rightly points out they enabled individual members of Congress to function and even to thrive as free agents. Or, in my language, they enabled House followers (lower ranking members) to free themselves of House leaders (higher ranking members).

But however important are changes in technology to understanding the new dynamic between leaders and followers, there are two other reasons why lowly member of the House now more easily run roughshod over those more highly placed. Both were spotlighted in my book, The End of Leadership, in which I had a chapter titled, “Technological Imperatives – Losing Control.” But I equally had a chapter titled “Cultural Constraints – Leveling the Playing Field.” And I also had one titled “Historical Trajectory – Lessening Power.”  

An example of what I observed about the impact of culture was my reference to Monica Lewinsky. “I mention her in this chapter about leadership and culture,” I wrote, “because nothing so strongly signaled the increasing empowerment of followers and the concomitant diminishment of leaders as the sex scandal that dominated American politics during the late 1990s.” My point was that in the old days American presidents did sometimes have sexual relations with women other than their wives – but the American people never knew about it. Now, not only did they know, they strongly believed they were entitled to know. The culture had changed in ways that had narrowed the gap between those with authority and those without.

Similarly, the trajectory of history.  “Over the course of human history,” I wrote in The End of Leadership, “power and influence have devolved from the top down.” Certainly since the Enlightenment, power has increasingly been transferred from those at the top to those in the middle and at the bottom, including those previously completely disenfranchised, such as women.

The Republican fringe now has so much power because all fringes now have so much more power than they used to – if they want to. Nor is this diffusion of power limited only to democracies. For at least a decade, authoritarian leaders have understood full well that unless they clamp down, hard, their followers will get the better of them. Are the recent protests in China and Iran unrelated to the mess in Congress?  No, they are not. They are all of a piece in which changes in technology, and in culture, and in history impact on how leaders and led relate.

Totalitarian Turn

Totalitarian leaders don’t reverse themselves. Given they are in total control they don’t want to reverse themselves. And, given they are in total control they don’t have to reverse themselves. Certainly not completely, and definitely not overnight. For to make a 180-dgreee turn, and to make it suddenly, is to admit defeat. Or, at least to admit, if only implicitly, to a major mistake.

We are unlikely ever to know exactly what persuaded China’s President Xi Jinping to end, effectively from one moment to the next, his longstanding and militant zero Covid policy. Cause and effect remain opaque in this case precisely because what has been considered cause – a rare instance of public protests in some of China’s largest cities – would normally simply be squelched. Totalitarian regimes never respond to people power. To the contrary, they do the opposite. They do as they are doing in Iran. They hang dissenters. They don’t encourage them by acceding to what they want.

Yet hard on the heels of his greatest political triumph – Xi recently was granted an unprecedented third term in office – he chose to back down. To reverse course completely by surrendering what had been his signature policy, zero Covid. The abrupt nature of Xi’s reversal became immediately apparent. China’s health care system was totally unprepared for the overnight change in health care policy, with consequences that predictably were severe. It has been reported that within weeks, half of Beijing’s 22 million residents were infected.

Given the unprecedented nature of Xi’s reversal, and given his government was caught flatfooted, why did he back down? Could be the sole reason was those protests. Could be the protests were in tandem with other factors such as strong advice from close advisors, and hard data on how costly the lockdowns of zero Covid including a declining economy (e. g. sharply diminished exports and retail sales), and parts of the population driven almost to the breaking point.

Whatever the constellation of reasons for Xi’s 180-degree turn, two things are inarguable. First, for a dictatorial leader to agree to such a drastic reversal in a policy with which he was so closely associated is exceedingly rare. Xi must, then, have been pushed very hard to do what he did. Second, for a dictatorial leader to accept such a humiliating defeat sends a signal. Xi today is less powerful than he was just a couple of months ago. Notwithstanding his recent crowning, there’s now a distinct chink in his totalitarian armor.    

“The Central Cause of Jan. 6 was One Man”

The invaluably important U. S. House “January 6th Committee,” got one thing wrong. It was, however, a Big Thing. Regrettably its conclusion read in part: “The central cause of Jan. 6 was one man, former President Donald Trump, whom many others followed. None of the events of Jan. 6 would have happened without him.” (Italics mine.) So strong was the Committee’s emphasis on the guilt of a single individual, Trump, that the headline in the New York Times read, “Jan. 6 Committee Blames ‘One Man’ for Riot.”

Notwithstanding this final focus on “one man,” to read the Committee’s report, or to have followed its proceedings, is to understand full well that what happened on January 6th required the ready, willing, and able participation not just of a single individual, but of a cast of thousands. The attack on the U. S. Capitol would have been impossible without them! These thousands – these followers, these enablers – were then as responsible as was the president himself for the violence. He was the principal – but they were his agents. Trump’s indispensable agents.

Different agents played different parts. Mark Meadows, the president’s chief of staff, was intimately involved in what happened. So, albeit to a lesser extent, were other members of the Trump administration, and some members of Congress, and some members of the political, financial, and media elites, and so on. Then there were the rioters, the attackers themselves. Though they did not, obviously, have the same access to the president, it was they who did the deed. Who stormed the Capitol, bashed down doors and bashed in heads. Who did – as opposed to refusing to do – what they assumed the president wanted them to do.

I define followers as “subordinates how have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line.”* On January 6th, some of the president’s followers balked. They refused to fall into line. But others of his followers did not balk. They did fall into line which is why a few American lives were lost and many more threatened.

I define enablers as “followers who allow or even encourage their leaders to engage in, and then to persist in, behaviors that are destructive.”** Enablers are, then, a subset of followers. On January 6, 2021, some of the president’s followers chose to enable him, others of the president’s followers chose differently.     

For all its important work, then, the January 6th Committee missed an opportunity. It did not need to be reductionist or simplictic. It did not need to blame “one man” for the riot. It could easily have added a few more concluding sentences – sentences that would have educated the American people on how events like these come to pass. How complex the process is, as opposed to the handiwork of just one man.

It has been reported that the Committee’s focus on Trump was controversial. That most on the Committee (and most staff) preferred its final report not marginalize the roles of other actors including the violent ones, their financial supporters, and their sympathizers in law enforcement. But on this as on many other things the Committee’s Vice Chair, Elizabeth Cheney, prevailed. It was she who was adamant on having the Committee not just focus on Trump but fixate on him.

Cheney, famously a Republican, played a heroic role on the January 6th Committee. By every account she sacrificed at least her short term political career to work unrelentingly hard to hold those responsible for what happened on January 6 to account. Moreover, she was right. The leader, President Trump, played a pivitol role. But she was wrong in her reductionism. Trump himself never even appeared at the Capitol. The damage was literally inflicted by his followers. And it was literally facilitated by his enablers who, in tandem with their leader were hellbent on dismantling democracy instead of defending it.

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*From Barbara Kellerman, Followership (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).     

**From Barbara Kellerman, The Enablers (Cambridge University Press, 2021).  

Leader of the Year – 2022

What are my criteria for Leader of the Year – 2022? I have only one. My criterion is impact. My selection of who has been Leader of the Year in 2022 is based on which leader had the greatest impact – the strongest effect, for better or worse – during the last twelve months.

According to this criterion the Leader of the Year – 2022 is Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

On what and, or on whom has he had an impact? Let me count the ways.

  1. Ukraine. Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was almost entirely the decision of one man. Putin. It’s why it’s often called, “Putin’s War.” As of December 2022, it is estimated that Putin’s War has been responsible for the deaths of some 13,000 thousand Ukrainian soldiers, and the killing or wounding of tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians. (The figures vary widely.) Further, because of Putin’s War are some eight million refugees (most in Poland), with at least a third of Ukraine’s population (44 million in 2021) having been displaced westward. Additionally, on Putin’s orders parts of Ukraine have been turned into rubble: heavy damage has been inflicted by the Russian miliary on Ukraine’s cities, countryside, and infrastructure; its animal and plant life as well as on its people. It will take many years and enormous investments to restore Ukraine – and that’s setting aside the pain, the loss, and the grief that will never go away. If there has been a single saving grace to Putin’s War, it has been the emergence of Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky as a heroic leader. As a leader who has come more than any other in many years to symbolize, to personify personal freedom and political democracy.
  2. Russia. In November Western experts estimated that some 100,000 Russian soldiers had already been killed or wounded in the war. Moreover, Putin’s recent mobilization of another 300,000 troops further suggests that for the time being at least he is willing to fight to the death – the deaths of others – to realize at least some of his war aims. The truth though is far uglier than what Putin projects. The war has revealed that Russia’s military is weaker, much weaker, than either Russian or Western experts originally supposed. This weakness has been compounded by a series of strategic mistakes, based on poor information and false suppositions about Russia’s skill to fight – and about Ukraine’s will to fight. Instead of the resounding victory that Putin at first envisioned, he has been forced to face something else entirely: “the greatest human and strategic calamity since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” (Based on deep reporting by the New York Times.) So far as the West is concerned, Russia will be for the indefinite future a highly sanctioned pariah state, on which countries such as Germany will never again depend for critical resources.
  3. NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, by far the West’s most important miliary alliance, has been lethargic for years. For now, those days are gone. NATO has rediscovered its strategic purpose, while the United States and Europe have been reminded not only of the values they share, but of the need to remain militarily strong as well as politically vigilant. Additionally, NATO is likely to expand. Putin’s War prompted Sweden and Finland – long staunchly neutral – to rethink their national security policy. In May both formally applied to join NATO which, despite Turkey’s objections (related to the Kurds), likely will soon happen. Finally, there is NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. Stoltenberg is a Norwegian politician who has been in his NATO post since 2014 and who, certainly so far as Americans are concerned, has labored largely in obscurity. But Putin’s War has seen him emerge as a force in his own right. Stoltenberg has been stalwart throughout the crisis, voicing on NATO’s behalf a clear and consistent message. Russian aggression will not prevail. Western resolve will.       
  4. United States. The impact on the United States of Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has been considerable. The war in Ukraine is the largest, the deadliest and most destructive war on European soil since the end of World War II. It’s as if the shock of this radical deviation from what had come to be the norm forged a unity among American policy makers that recently has been a rarity. In the last five years at least America’s leadership class has hardly ever been joined in common purpose. Obviously, I am including in this group the President and members of Congress. But not only them. Americans across the board led by leaders across the board have been almost in unison: strong support for Ukraine, strong opposition against Russia. By leaders across the board, I refer to political and military leaders, yes, but also to corporate leaders, educational leaders, religious leaders, media leaders – you name them. During the next electoral cycle America’s generous and unflinching support for Ukraine is likely increasingly to be tested. But for our common purpose so far, President Joe Biden deserves considerable credit. Credit also to those who normally would oppose a Democratic president but who in this case saw fit to support him. It’s a relief to many millions of Americans, wearied by their divisiveness.
  5. Germany. No single country except obviously Ukraine and Russia has been more transformed by Putin’s War than Germany. Europe generally is more directly affected by what’s happening in Ukraine than is the United States. First, the war is closer. It’s a drive from Berlin to Lviv, not necessarily a flight. Second, Ukrainian refugees are everywhere visible in Europe, including over a million in Germany.  Third, is the impact of the war on everyday life, whether lights and temperatures turned low, or inflation turned high. Germany for example was highly dependent on Russia for energy. Those days are gone. In part as a result, the rate of inflation in Germany is now 10 percent, among the highest in the larger advanced economies.  (Before the war German inflation was 4.9 percent.) But the impact on Germany of Putin’s attack goes even deeper. Which brings us to point four. As the German ambassador to the United States, Emily Haber, has observed, Germany’s “national psychology is undergoing a profound transformation.” Germans generally are done with the idea that their relatively close ties first with the Soviet Union then with Russia changed the nature of the Russian bear. And Germans generally are done with the idea that war was something that happened to other countries and in other countries, never again to them. As a result of their rude awakening, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has led the charge to 1) end German dependance on Russian energy; 2) change Germany’s policy to permit exporting weapons to war zones; and 3) enshrine in the German constitution a major commitment to defense spending. As Haber put it, in consequence of Putin’s War the changes in Germany are “real” and they are “lasting.” Or, as Scholz put it, 2022 was a Zeitenwende – a moment that was a watershed.
  6. Middle East and Africa. As is usual with wars, there are those who profit from them. In this case Putin’s War caused oil prices to soar, which in turn further filled the coffers of energy exporters such as Saudi Arabia. But for everyone who has gained from this war, many, many more have lost. The United Nations has estimated that fifty countries rely on Russia and Ukraine for at least thirty percent of their imports of wheat. When these are interrupted, as they have been certainly episodically by the war in Ukraine, millions of people in the Middle East and Africa suffer from increased privation and even starvation. Countries most severely affected are those without easily extractable resources of their own, such as Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya in the Middle East, and Tunisia, Morocco, and Chad in Africa. Yemen is one of the countries hardest hit by the conflict in Europe. Over 17 million Yeminis – over half the population – are anyway food insecure. Given that Yemen procures nearly 45 percent of its wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine, when these are interfered with the impact obviously is devastating. The impact of Putin’s War is not then limited, it is unlimited. Even people and places that are far flung have suffered from the soaring prices and crippling shortages that are one of the countless consequences of what one man did.
  7. International System.  The term “international system” refers to how states relate, one to another, one to a group of others, groups of one to groups of others. Putin’s impact on the international system is difficult to calculate, but even more difficult to overestimate.  Most obviously it has altered for the indefinite future the situation in Europe. More specifically, it has changed, worsened, the relationship between Russia and the European Union. It has equally changed, worsened, the relationship between Russia and members of NATO, including, especially, the United States. It will take years, decades, maybe generations before these now cavernous divides can be closed, if they ever are. Similarly, if somewhat more elusively, Putin’s War has had an impact on relations between Russia and China, and between China and the United States. It is speculated that China’s President Xi Jinping sees a parallel between Putin’s attempt to take over (retake) Ukraine and his own fierce determination to take over (retake) Taiwan. Both leaders consider both territories as rightly belonging to them, to the states they have led for many years. (Putin has been leader of Russia for approximately two decades; Xi has been leader of China for approximately one.)  During the days of the Cold War the world was viewed as bipolar, shaped by the competition between the two behemoths, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  Since then, the international system has become more complex. China has become a vastly more important actor, economically, politically, and militarily. Additionally, except for Great Britain Europe has become more joined; and other countries from Venezuela to Vietnam, from India to Indonesia, have become forces that must be reckoned with. Moreover, new considerations, from climate change to supply chains have entered the global conversation. Still, for all the current complexities, the impact of one leader on the international system can still be almost unfathomably great.
  8. Democracy. As Freedom House has repeatedly documented, it, democracy, has been in decline in recent years. Each year for at least the last fifteen, are fewer countries that are democracies and more that are autocracies. It’s remotely possible though that Putin will reverse this trend. Far be it from me to play Pollyanna! Nor do I wish to ascribe to this single evil leader a power he does not have. Still, it can reasonably be claimed that Putin’s cruel attack on Ukraine has reminded people the world over that democratic ideals continue to resonate and that some people, here the Ukrainians, consider them worth sacrificing their lives for. One of the three recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is the Russian human rights organization, Memorial. The chair of Memorial is Jan Rachinsky, who when he accepted the prize in Oslo earlier this month said this. “What we see as the root cause of the crimes [in Ukraine] is the sanctification of the Russian state …. This requires that the absolute priority of power is to serve the interests of the state over the interests of individual human beings – their freedom, dignity, and rights. This inverted system of values prevailed in the Soviet Unition for 70 years and, regrettably, it continues until today.”

Rachinsky understands full well of course that Putin’s War is not only about Putin. It’s not Putin on the battlefield in Ukraine, risking his life for his cause. Those who take their lives in their hands to obey the orders of the Russian autocrat are his followers. Putin’s followers. Which is why, in Oslo, Rachinsky added this: “One of the obvious effects of the sanctification of the state is … that it allows for impunity not only for those who make criminal political decisions, but also for those who commit crimes in the execution of these decisions.”

Withal, Putin’s followers are his agents. He is the principal.

Case closed. Vladimir Putin is Leader of the Year – 2022.

Leadership Magic

I am not out to romanticize or glorify the man. Nor is his story over. Still, I think it’s possible if not now probable that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will go down in history as among the most significant leaders of the modern Western world.

His appearance last night before a joint session of the U.S. Congress was electric. To have watched him live was to succumb to the mood of the moment. Almost impossible to resist the impact of his leadership style and substance on nearly every member of the House and Senate. Almost impossible not to be reminded of how at their peak, leadership and followership fuse, leader and followers engaged in a relationship that feels, that is, mutually momentous.  

None of this though is “magic.” Leadership that is electric does happen, though only rarely. Leadership that is magic is however rarer still. What’s magic about Zelensky is how he came to be – transfigured in the blink of an eye. Transformed from one moment to the next. From one moment to the next metamorphosed from a leader who was ordinary to one who was extraordinary.

To whom can Zelensky more generally be compared? To which leader is he even remotely analogous? In the wake of last night’s speech Zelensky was repeatedly likened to Winston Churchill, specifically to the British Prime Minister in 1941, when he traveled to the U.S. in great secrecy similarly to plead for help before both houses of Congress as his country was beset by a mighty fascist foe.

Which other leaders have put themselves on the line to fight for freedom and democracy against overwhelming odds? There have been others, of course. Martin Luther King, Franklin Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and, for that matter, George Washington come immediately to mind. But each of these was seasoned over time. They had years to prepare for the moment when history called.

Not so Zelensky. As the world now knows Zelensky was an entertainer. He was a comic and an actor. He entered politics only in 2019 – and in 2019 he was elected president of Ukraine.

During his short time in politics Zelensky was not of course oblivious to the threat posed by Russia. After all, in 2014 Russian President Vladimir Putin had already seized Crimea from Ukraine and occupied some of its eastern regions. But the fledgling Ukrainian president did not bargain for war. Certainly not for “Putin’s War,” a ferocious, entirely unprovoked attack on Ukraine in February 2022.  

Still, his inexperience and inexpertness notwithstanding, Zelensky became, effectively overnight, one of the greatest wartime leaders in recent history. Within hours of the Russian invasion the U.S. embassy in Kiev offered Zelensky and his family safe harbor, an escort to get out of Ukraine. He famously rejected it, with a reply that was a harbinger of the leader to come: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Who can say how such a thing happens? How a largely unpracticed and apparently unremarkable man is refashioned overnight into what seems a leader for the ages. Magic.  

Leadership – an Insight!

It’s not often that I read something about leadership that seems somehow new. Nor do I claim the following insight is rocket science. Still, the emphasis it received in a recent column by New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin is worth underscoring.

At a conference earlier this month Sorkin interviewed some of the world’s most powerful leaders, including Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelensky, Meta’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and Amazon’s chief executive Andy Jassy. (Sorkin also spoke with the now notorious jailbird, founder, and former CEO of FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried.)

Sorkin found there was one theme that came up repeatedly: “It was that every decision – big and small – is ultimately a trade-off.” Sometimes that trade-off is moral, other times it is political or economic; sometimes it is a one sort of trade-off for another sort. The public is often unaware of these trade-offs, but the decision maker feels them acutely. He or she is usually, sometimes painfully aware costs will be incurred.

In his column (link below) Sorkin provided several examples, of which recently reelected Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was perhaps the most vivid. Netanyahu has been reluctant to provide Ukraine – which in the abstract he would support – with missile systems because he feels obliged to preserve his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why? Because it enables Israel to maintain its access to Syrian air space (which Russia controls), access that Netanyahu believes of “existential importance to his people.”

Netanyahu: “There is always a balance. Leaders do this every day. In general, foreign policy and democracy is a combination of moral principles and expediency. What assumes primacy? Interests or values? The answer is neither. You balance the two.”

None of this is said in admiration of Netanyahu. Not hardly. But the trade-offs to which he correctly alludes are a key reason leaders find it difficult to lead. While often people are not aware of the trade-offs, often they are aware of their consequences. Israel’s foot-dragging on helping the Ukrainians is, for example, making a lot of people in a lot of places very unhappy.

In political science the word “realpolitik” is a familiar one. It refers to politics based on practical, as opposed to moral or ideological considerations. Leaders like Netanyahu, who consciously engage in tough trade-offs, are practitioners of the art. They are realpoliticians – and they are everywhere.    

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