Followers of the Year – the Trump Edition

The word “follower” has always been problematic. Though it is the obvious antonym of “leader,” there are at least two reasons for the disdain in which the word, “follower,” continues to be held. First, followers are usually associated with weakness and passivity. “Leaders” suggest strength and success; “followers” the opposite. If not failure exactly, then certainly not achievement or accomplishment. Second, followers do not always follow. Sometimes they refuse to go along with what their leaders want and intend.

I have tried to get around both these problems by defining followers simply by rank. Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line. *

The list below is in keeping with this definition. The list is not composed of followers as they are usually conceived. But each of these people had far less power, authority, and influence than did their leader, in this case the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump.

Given that millions of Americans did and still do support Trump – on November 3rd he received more votes than any other presidential candidate in history except Joe Biden – and given that the Republican political elite followed the president effectively in lockstep, it has been inordinately difficult, especially obviously for Republicans, to stand up to his powerful persona. To resist saying and doing exacty what Trump wanted and intended. But, some people, not many people, hardly any people, but some people did. This then is a select list of followers, each a Republican, who had less power, influence, and authority than the chief executive, but who nevertheless had the guts to speak truth to power – even at personal, professional, and political risk.

  • Rick Bright – Bright is a physician and a whistleblower. It was Bright more than any other single scientist in the Trump administration who dared to defy not only his immediate superiors but the entire Trump administration. In a May 2020 formal whistleblower complaint Bright alleged that he was not only ignored but demoted for trying to call attention to the danger posed by the new coronavirus which, even by then, had morphed into a public health crisis. In a theatrical twist, Dr. Bright has since been named by President-elect Joe Biden to be a member of his coronavirus advisory board.
  • Brad Raffensberger – He is Georgia’s Republican secretary of state – the one who had the temerity publicly to insist that his state’s vote for Joe Biden was legal and binding because it was accurate and complete. For his troubles he was asked by his fellow Georgians, and his fellow Republicans, Senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, to resign. And, for his troubles, he was accused by the administration of committing fraud, and threatened with death by some in his state who had been incited and inflamed by Trump’s baseless allegations.
  • Mitt Romney – He has all the blessings in the world, such as piles of money and a large, loving family. Moreover, his seat as senator from the state of Utah is secure. Still, Romney was the only Republican senator, the only one, who had the independence not to acquit President Donald Trump of both charges for which he was impeached. Romney said he broke with his party to vote to convict on the charge of abuse of power because he believed that Trump was guilty and that he should, therefore, be “removed from office.” Romney’s vote made him a unique figure in American history. Never previously in American history has a senator voted to remove from office a president from his own party.
  • Gabriel Sterling – Sterling is on the list not just for what he said but for how he said it. His oratory was brilliant, passionate, memorable. “This has all gone too far,” he said, his voice quaking with passion and emotion. “It has to stop.” Sterling is another Republican, and another election official from the state of Georgia. His anger and upset were at the violence that Trump had encouraged, if not explicitly then implicitly. All in the service of the president’s ego, an ego so fragile it cannot cope with humiliation or diminishment of any kind. “Mr. President,” said, Sterling, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone is going to get hurt, someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
  • Aaron Van Langevelde – His is not a name etched in your memory? Really? Well, maybe it should be – for it is a name we should note. It belongs on this honor role of people with far less power, authority, and influence than the American president who nevertheless were brave and bold enough to take on him and his Republican toadies and lackies. Van Langveld works for Republicans in the Michigan statehouse. He is a young lawyer who is active on behalf of his party, but who defied his party by voting to certify the results of the presidential election in Michigan, in which Trump lost to Biden by more than 154,000 votes. This should not be regarded an act of exceptional political courage. But in this political climate it is. For example, the other Republican on the four-person board abstained on the final vote – demonstrating the sort of cowardice the president has come not only to demand but expect.

Sad. This list is sad – a sad reflection on the state of the nation.

But … today is December 12th. 2021 beckons!

*The definition is in my book, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business School Press, 2008).

Fauci’s Failure

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci has been Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) for over 36 years. Twice over during his atypically long tenure he played a particularly prominent part in a health care crisis.

The first was in the 1980s when, in response to the reasonable raging of legendary gay rights activist Larry Kramer, Fauci was instrumental in getting the government, in collaboration with big pharma, to develop and distribute drugs to combat AIDS. And the second was, of course, during the last year, when as director of NIAID, and as a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci became the nation’s most visible and widely trusted health care expert. For most of 2020, as America’s experience of the pandemic went from bad to far worse, it was Fauci more than anyone else who represented the American medical establishment.

Though initially he was in Donald Trump’s good graces, as spring turned into summer Fauci was effectively exiled from the White House. The president no longer wanted to hear what he had to say.  But this week Fauci was brought in from the cold – not by the incumbent president but by the president-elect. Joe Biden asked Fauci to be his chief medical adviser – an offer that Fauci, by his own testimony, accepted “on the spot.”

But is Dr. Fauci the hero that he has been made out to be? Was he the leader that we needed in winter and spring of 2020, when we should have been warned over and over again, if not by Trump then by others in his administration, especially health care professionals, of the dangers that lay ahead if Covid-19 got out of hand? I would argue no. I would argue that Fauci – like other medical bureaucrats, such as Dr. Robert Redfield, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – was far too passive and far too pliant to play the part of Paul Revere. As an expert in infectious disease Fauci should have known better than to tell us early in the year that there was no reason for us not to travel – and that there was no reason for us to wear a mask. Additionally Fauci should have known better than to stand by silently as the president lied to the nation about the pernicious threat that was Covid-19 – as when he promised the American people the virus would “just disappear.”

Fauci became somewhat more forthright, somewhat more direct as the months dragged on and the pandemic got worse. But by then it was not only too little but too late – Fauci had been too careful, cautious, and conservative for too long. By then many millions of Americans were no longer able or, better, willing to hear his admonitions or recommendations. By playing the part of Trump’s good solder during the early months of the year Fauci failed to be what we needed him to be – a leader in health care, not a follower.         

What should Fauci have done instead of what he did? He knew or he thought he did that if he refused to follow where Trump led in the months of, say, February, March, and April, he would have been fired. To which I would reply – so what? Fauci has anyway clung to his position for far too long. No leader should ever remain in a post for as long as he already has. Moreover, given that he was reporting to a leader who was bad, as incompetent as unethical, one could argue, and I do, that it was Fauci’s moral responsibility not only to speak truth to power but to shout truth to power. Fauci though is a gentleman of the old school. He did not have it in him to do what he needed to do – to break rank. Time for fresh blood.


The president of the United States has gone off the rails. I mean seriously.

All along have been doubts about his mental health. In 2017 was an edited volume titled, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, in which 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts assessed his stability. They warned that Trump was unfit for duty – unfit to be president of the United States.

Their conclusion was based on observations of behaviors that became the more obvious the longer he was in the White House. They included but were not limited to: engaging in angry outbursts; lying habitually, chronically; disparaging and demeaning opponents; praising tyrants and other authoritarians; failing to evidence any empathy; encouraging violence certainly implicitly; being indifferent to governance; wildly exaggerating his own achievements; demanding tireless praise and expressions of admiration; and bullying both online and in person.    

In 2020 Donald Trump’s niece, herself a psychologist, came out with a book, Too Much and Never Enough, that had a similar message. Based on knowing her uncle as long and well as she did, in addition to watching his performance as president, Mary Trump concluded that his “pathologies are so complex and his behaviors so often inexplicable that coming up with an accurate and comprehensive diagnosis would require a full battery of psychological and neuropsychological tests.”

Donald Trump’s behaviors since he lost the presidential election provide still further confirmation of what years ago was diagnosed. His relentless denial of electoral reality; his relentless refusal to pay attention to the pandemic, and his relentless raging against anyone who is other than a servile sycophant, is further evidence if any were needed that he is mentally, psychologically, unfit to be chief executive. An excellent if unsettling account of the president’s responses to his defeat is an article in the Washington Post, “20 Days of Fantasy and Failure.” Among its many revealing lines is this one: “Sequestered in the White House and brooding out of public view after his election defeat, rageful and at times delirious in a torrent of private conversations, Trump was, in the telling of one close advisor, like Mad King George, muttering, ‘I won. I won. I won.'”*

No news here really. Nor is it news that we the people continue to put up with Trump – and that tens of millions of us continue strongly to support him.  What only time will tell though is whether this moment – the four years during which Trump was in the White House – is an aberration. Or whether, instead, it is in indicator. An indicator of America not just in the present but in the future.  

Those among us who think Trump the worst president in American history heaved a deep sigh of relief when Biden beat him at the polls. But our relief was premature. It will take one more presidential cycle, or even two, to confirm that Trump was an outlier.

Imagine yourself a European politician, one whose country has been a member of the NATO alliance since it was founded. This would mean that for more than 70 years your country’s foreign policy was based on the belief that the United States was an ally. An ally whose values mirrored your own, an ally that was dependable, reliable, predictable. But along comes Trump, a president whose values were other than yours, a president who had turned America into an ally that was, or seemed at least undependable, unreliable, and unpredictable.

Do you – as this hypothetical European politician – base your country’s present foreign policy on the assumption that Trump was an exception to the American rule? Or do you base it on the assumption that he was a harbinger of America’s future? Or do you hedge your bets – believing you cannot not know what the United States will look like, will be like, ten or even five years hence?   

The questions apply of course not just to our allies but to ourselves. The deep concerns raised by Trump’s tenure as president will not, should not, must not vanish just because he does. His time in the White House has revealed frightening fissures in America’s political system. We would do well to address them – very well.



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.