“Throw the Rascals (Leaders) Out!”

In the old days we put up with political leaders we thought were performing poorly, even very poorly. Or with whom we disagreed, even strongly disagreed. We waited for them to be replaced by usual means, such as retiring or losing an election.

That was then.

Now our disposition is different – our fuse is shorter. Now, if we don’t much like a leader, or we take issue with a leader, we want nothing so much as to give him or maybe her the old heave-ho.   

Our patience with political leaders is exceedingly low. If they don’t mirror our ideologies, or suit our personalities, or reflect our policy preferences we want to oust them. Like toddlers we stamp our feet kicking and screaming until we are mollified. Like toddlers we want immediately, instantly, to be gratified by getting rid of a leader we dislike. Now. 

The gubernatorial recall vote in California is a striking example of this unhappy trend. Has the incumbent governor, Gavin Newsom, been perfect? Not hardly. He’s made mistakes, at least one of which was so painfully idiotic it cost him dearly. (His idiotic misstep? Having a very fancy and expensive dinner at a very fancy and expensive restaurant smack in the middle of the Covid crisis – while at the same time urging his constituents to stay home and never venture out without wearing a mask, at least not inside. Oh, did I mention that at the dinner he was photographed having a high old time – sitting at his table not wearing a mask?! )

But has he been reasonably competent and responsible? Absolutely. The attempt by a right-wing coalition to force California’s Democratic governor from his post would be ridiculous were it not also serious. And … were it not also in danger of succeeding. (California makes it far too easy to call for a recall vote. Since 1960 every governor has faced at least one. But none except Newsom have faced five!)

A similar indicator is the Republicans’ recent response to President Joe Biden’s decision to end America’s military presence in Afghanistan. So outraged were they that mere dissent, even vigorous dissent, did not suffice. For his sin Republicans wanted – they want still – to push the nation’s the chief executive out of the Oval Office. Maybe push him to resign. Maybe impeach him. Maybe by invoking the 25th amendment which, under certain remote circumstances, can remove a president from office.

Senator Lindsay Graham’s response to what his longtime senatorial colleague Joe Biden had done was typical of the times in which we live. Tweeted Graham, “If we leave any American’s behind or if we leave thousands of Afghans who fought bravely alongside us behind, President Joe Biden deserves to be impeached for a High Crime and Misdemeanor or Dereliction of Duty.”

Really? When is a strong difference of opinion – on even the most fraught of foreign policy issues – grounds for impeachment? Grow up, folks!  

The Nation’s Second Highest Officer – or Where’s Kamala?

Many Americans know that historically American Vice Presidents have been weak. Many Americans additionally know that more recently some American Vice Presidents have been strong. Finally, many Americans know that the relationship between the President and Vice President is determined virtually entirely by the former as opposed to the latter.  

Though their association during the presidential primaries was less than warm and fuzzy, once Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate, he made every effort to endorse her, support her, and to all appearances introduce her into his inner circle. Moreover, in the period immediately after he was inaugurated, Biden frequently made it a point to have Harris by his side. (Though mostly she stood a few feet back and mostly she remained mute.) Finally, he bestowed on her a generous, even enormous portfolio, including helping to enact legislation on voting rights, and to managing the crisis at the southern border.

But eight months into the Biden administration his vice president seems a sideshow. Harris been virtually invisible on voting rights, which remain elusive at best. And Harris has been virtually invisible on the crisis at the border, which continues to worsen. As pointedly, she has been missing in action during the last ten days, an exceedingly fraught period not only for Afghans and Americans, but notably also for the Biden administration.

So, where has Vice President Harris been during this time? Can’t speak to where she was during the first week of this foreign policy crisis, except to say she was nowhere obvious to be found. As to the second week, two days ago she was shipped off to Asia. Today she’s in Singapore, apparently to mouth platitudes.      

For all I know Harris is just as glad not to be associated with what even many of Biden’s supporters are criticizing as a deeply unfortunate, unforced policy error. But given the primary purpose of any Vice President is to take over, if necessary, from an incapacitated President, it cannot be said that up to now Kamala Harris’s preparation for the job has been exemplary.    

“The CEO Whisperer”

Early this summer The Wall Street Journal featured an interview with Rich Lesser. Lesser had been head of Boston Consulting Group for nine years. Additionally he was known as the “CEO Whisperer” who had “made a career” out of advising other CEOs.

No doubt he was paid big bucks, very big bucks for what he did. So, I would’ve loved to know what exactly his wisdom consisted of. But, of course, the specifics of what Lesser said to his clients would have depended on the specifics of their situations.

Still, even in this short interview, some of Lesser’s more important leadership lessons became clear. In part, this was because he articulated them clearly, if perhaps a bit clumsily. And in part this was because they were hymns I’ve been singing for years. Specifically, I’ve argued, as does Lesser, that being a leader now is more difficult than it used to be. Why? Because leaders in liberal democracies – leaders in business, in government, and for that matter leaders everyplace else – do not have as much power as they did even a decade ago, and they do not have as much authority.

Here is some of what Lesser said when he spoke with the WSJ.  

  • Times have changed. The context today is different from what it was yesterday.

Lesser: “The CEOs I talk to” have “so much more on their minds” than they did “even five years ago.”

  • Leaders are weaker than they used to be. This makes it harder for them to get their followers – their many different stakeholders – to follow.

Lesser: In today’s world, CEOs “have to have a learning mind-set, which means [they] have to be ready to listen to people – not just the people [they’re] comfortable with.”

  • Followers are stronger than they used to be. They are more entitled and emboldened. And social media provide them with a heretofore unimagined platform, and megaphone.

Lesser: “You have to set a high priority on society, the climate, your customers, your employees. Now you’re managing trade-offs across multiple stakeholders, often in ways that are hard to read, often with intense scrutiny around what you say and do.” .  

  • Because you are weaker, and others are stronger, collaboration is key. Leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are the exceptions that prove the rule. The rule is that leaders can no longer go it alone.

                    Lesser: “More than ever before you have to be…amazing at teaming. It doesn’t mean you don’t lead, but you have to lead in a way that you expect to be challenged…. I always had a mind-set that we were going to talk things through…. I would often carry those discussions a bit longer than some people felt was necessary but made it clear that we were ready to really engage people – that I wasn’t coming in with the answer.”

  • It’s rough out there. Think VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. They are as real as is the coarsened public discourse with which anyone in public life must learn to put up.

                       Lesser:  CEOs are “dealing with things that together have made it a much harder job than it was … There’s a level of unpredictability politically…[and technologically]….

During the nine years that Lesser was at the helm at BCG it thrived. The firm more than doubled its size and it tripled its revenue. Seems clear he did something right as CEO. Seems equally clear he did something right as advisor to other CEOs. Maybe then, just maybe, he has something to say about leadership to which attention should be paid.  

Leadership Leaks – Contaminating the Context

          For those among us who dread the very idea of Donald Trump returning to the White House, or for that matter anyone remotely like him, the last week of Joe Biden’s presidency has been as scary as sad. For once there is blood in the water sharks linger.

           Setting aside the decision to leave Afghanistan and setting aside even the way in which Afghanistan was left, is the issue of timing. I get it: Biden was bound and determined to get out. This though raises the question not just of how, but of when. Assuming the implementation of his decision was certain to be at least a little bit messy, maybe even a lot messy, the question of when to act was key.   

          Yes, there were timetables. And yes, promises had been made. But the administration could have stalled for time while focusing its energies on a few all-important items on its immediate domestic agenda.  These included among others proposed but infinitely complex legislation on infrastructure and proposed but infinitely fraught legislation on voting rights. All Biden’s energy and political clout should have been spent this summer on these two key initiatives. But, as it stands now, they like other items on his to-do list are bound to be more difficult to realize first because there are only so many hours even in a president’s day. And second because those other than the president’s staunchest allies will be less likely to follow him now than they would have been a month ago.

A leader’s reputation is a fragile thing. It always was, at least in the modern age. And now it is more so. The culture is such that we as soon tear leaders down as build them up, and the technology is such that denigrating them is as easy as fast.

Moreover, fairly, or not, incompetence in one area suggests incompetence in another. Which is why, at least for the time being, maybe longer, the whole of Biden’s presidency has been contaminated by the perception of his incompetence as it pertains to Afghanistan.

Could he not have waited to do what he did until at least two years into his presidency? Where was it written that he had to withdraw when his administration was still young? Did he not realize that leadership leaks? That good leadership makes followers more likely to follow. And that bad leadership make followers less likely to follow. It’s really very simple.

Rhode on Ambition – AKA (Sometimes) as Lust

Ambition – For What? is the title of Deborah Rhode’s just-published, last, posthumous, book.*

 She was among the most eminent legal scholars of her generation, who happened also to have a strong interest in leadership. Deborah taught about leadership, wrote about leadership, thought about leadership long and hard. In fact, she and I co-edited a book on leadership, Women and Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change.**

It seems a coincidence but perhaps it is not that her book on ambition overlaps to a degree with a recent one of mine (with Todd Pittinsky), titled Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy.*** While on the surface the two books appear quite different, it turns out that both are, among other things, ruminations on excesses. Moreover, the objects of these excesses are in several cases the same, such as power, money, and sex.      

Rhode’s term for what in Leaders Who Lust is called, obviously, lust, is addiction, or “addictive quest.” In Leaders Who Lust, lust is described as “a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain and object or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.” In Ambition Rhode wrote the desire for recognition is “toxic” when it can “never be fully satisfied.”  Applause, she goes on to add, “is addictive.” She continues: “Once individuals have adjusted their expectations and desires to receiving recognition, they become its prisoner, driven by the need to preserve their status.”  Just like lust – in this case the lust for status, which in Leaders Who Lust is called Success.

Rhode’s book on ambition is not per se about leaders. It is about ambition more generally. But given her interest in leadership, and given how leaders, many anyway, may be said to be driven by ambition, no surprise that leaders find their way into this final one of Rhode’s many books.   

Who in Ambition is the most obvious subject of discussion? Donald J. Trump, of course.  Trump was so, is so, obviously a leader who lusts that in our book we decided, deliberately, to leave him on the cutting room floor. But Rhode includes him, understandably, for on this matter – on obsessive excess – he is almost irresistible.

Arguably Trump was ambitious for, lusted after, power, money, success and, yes, sex. Rhode categorizes him as being ambitious above all for what she calls “recognition.” Of Trump she writes he “may be in a category of his own in his hunger for affirmation, applause, and self-aggrandizement.” As Trump said of himself years ago, in a remark that could apply to any one of his lusts, “I’m never satisfied.”

Rhode trots Trump out again when she claims sex “as a means to status.” Trump bragged about having sex with “seemingly very happily married and important women.” Trump also appears in Ambition when the discussion turns to power. Trump’s appetite for power, his overweening need to display his power, was evidenced in his “countless incidents of verbal abuse.” Rhode wrote being a “bully-in-chief in the White house reinforced a message of entitlement that perpetuated abuse.”      

Deborah Rhode was not only a colleague of mine she was a friend of mine. How I wish she were in the here and now so we could talk at length about ambition. About how leaders who are ambitious, even lustful, can be good. And about how leaders who are ambitious, even lustful, can be bad.

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*Oxford University Press, 2021.

**Jossey-Bass, 2008.

***Cambridge University Press, 2020.

The Enablers – Albany Edition

I’ve got a new book coming out this week. It’s titled, The Enablers: How Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America. It’s another refrain in a song I’ve been singing for years: Followers Matter.  

Our reluctance to recognize the importance of followers is especially wrongheaded in the case of bad leadership.  Fact is bad followers – especially the worst of the lot – make bad leaders possible. Bad followers are enablers who allow or even encourage their leaders to engage in, and then to persist in behaviors that are destructive.

To the rule that bad leaders have bad followers Cuomo was no exception.  He was enabled in his tyrannical ways, and apparent pattern of sexual harassment by a range of players without whom he could never have been so bad for so long. Cuomo’s enablers were based mostly in Albany, so their names remained obscure. But this made them no less significant, no less responsible for what went wrong.

They included Alphonso David, the governor’s former counsel; Richard Azzopardi, the governor’s senior advisor; his own brother and CNN anchor (still!), Chris Cuomo; and the now somewhat notorious Melissa DeRosa, Cuomo’s top aide. DeRosa was described by one former underling as “the worst person I have ever worked for,” and by others as a “ruthless, heartless, evil human being.” More to the point, in the report issued by New York State Attorney General Letitia James, formally titled “Report of Investigation into Allegations of Sexual Harassment by Governor Andrew M Cuomo,” DeRosa was named no fewer than 187 times – just as often as the Governor. She was described as a fierce and tireless force in the attempts to protect her boss at all costs, meaning if he was guilty of anything, she was guilty of covering it up. (Like her former boss, DeRosa recently resigned.)  

The state government and the city of Albany have their own culture, one largely unfamiliar to those at a remove. Unlike Washington, Albany is not a fishbowl. Instead, it’s a relatively insular city where secrets are kept. Cuomo (who will be out of office in a week) has been governor of New York since 2011, and in the public eye long before that. But especially in recent years, as his power consolidated, he was protected from scrutiny both by individuals and institutions. By enablers such as those already singled out, and by others who comprised the Executive Chamber, the governor’s inner sanctum.

James’s report pulled no punches. It identified the culture of the Executive Chamber for being impervious to outside influence, and for condoning a work environment that was “toxic” and “abusive.” Nor was its pernicious influence confined only to those who worked within. Those who worked outside the Executive Chamber were intimidated by it, concerned that if they strayed from the party line the Chamber’s habit of “intimidation and retribution” would be directed at them. James’s report ends by clearly stating that “the Governor sexually harassed a number of State employees….” But it goes on to add that Cuomo’s underlings were also culpable. The “Executive Chamber’s response to allegations of sexual harassment violated its internal policies and [its] response to one complainant’s allegations constituted unlawful retaliation.”

It is a depressing but by now familiar syndrome. We saw it in the case of President Donald Trump. Fact is he was enabled every minute of his every day in the White House. His enablers included members of his inner circle such as Ivanka Trump and the once indispensable Jared Kushner; members of his White House staff such as the slavishly loyal Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway; members of his Cabinet such as the scrupulously steadfast Mike Pompeo and Alex Azar; members of the media such as puppets Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham; members of his party such as indefatigable stalwarts Senator Lindsay Graham and Governor Ron DeSantis; and even members of the medical establishment such as the subservient director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Redfield, and the White House Coronavirus Advisor, Dr. Deborah Birx.

Letitia James did not make the usual mistake. She and her colleagues recognized that what happened in Albany was was not just about one bad leader but, equally, about his bad followers. About enablers who allowed or even encouraged New York’s governor to engage in, and to continue to engage in behaviors that were destructive.



Rigid Leadership – Biden as Exemplar

Rigid Leadership – The leader and at least some followers are stiff and unyielding. Although they may be competent, they are unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas, new information, or changing times.

When the summer was young, I wrote in this space that Joe Biden could become one of America’s great presidents. Before the summer was over, he proved me a poor prophet. He’s already made a tragic mistake, certain to shadow the rest of his presidency.  

During his first half year in office, Biden demonstrated he was decent and adroit. His character was a palpable relief after four years of a corrupt and mendacious predecessor. And his competence was amply in evidence, notably in his administration’s efficient distribution of virus vaccines, and in its smart management of a famously recalcitrant Congress. Biden’s many years in government seemed to have prepared him to rise to a series of daunting challenges.

But when it came to changing his mind on a position he had long held, Biden turned out rigid, unable to adapt to new ideas, new information, or changing times.

The italicized sentences at the start of this post are from my book, Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters.* In the book I identify seven different types of bad leadership, one of which is Rigid Leadership. In this case Biden and his team plowed ahead and implemented a decision he had long said he thought we should make – getting all American troops out of Afghanistan as fast as possible. This despite large swaths of the U. S. foreign policy establishment having come out clearly and consistently against the idea of abandoning the Afghans lock, stock, and barrel.

Biden was locked into the idea that the United States was trapped in a “forever war.” Again, it was an idea he had held since serving as Vice President to Barack Obama. And it was one to which he clung despite the situation in 2021 being demonstrably different from what it was five and ten years earlier. Times change. But on this issue, Biden proved himself unable to change along with the changing times. His mind was made up – that was that.

Biden’s failure to absorb the idea that in certain circumstances – as in Afghanistan – leaving a small military footprint works, however imperfectly, is already proving costly. These costs will rapidly rise and then they will rise some more. Moreover, they will be incurred not only abroad but at home – among them a stain on his presidency that might never be wiped out. An unforced error that in an instant became a crying shame. Literally.    

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*Harvard Business School Press, 2004, p. 75.

Separated at Birth – Trump and Cuomo

While neither has been convicted in a court of law, the evidence is convincing. Both President of the United States Donald Trump and Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo are guilty of wrongdoing – possibly of crimes. While they are only two of many American leaders who have behaved badly, they resemble each other in ways that are striking.   

  • Both are longtime inveterate New Yorkers.
  • Both had dominant, highly successful fathers – with large, looming presences that shadow their sons still.
  • Both were winners at an early age – because of fathers who provided strong support when they were young.
  • Both are loners, not great at marriage, no cronies to hang out with, and no close friends.  
  • Both are paranoid. Wherever is not a friend, is an enemy.
  • Both lead like dictators not democrats.
  • Both value loyalty in their subordinates above all other traits.  
  • Both are delusional – or, at least, unable to read handwriting on the wall.
  • Both will be pushed from their perches only kicking and screaming.
  • Both are street fighters – they will fight to the death rather than surrender, or even admit they were wrong.
  • Both are bad leaders who were supported by bad followers – by enablers who for years tolerated their bad behaviors and protected them from fallout.  
  • Both will be remembered as disgraced.

Bad leadership is a malignant thorn in our side. Attention must be paid – which is why this cursory though not casual look at ties that that bind.

The Enablers

My next book will be out in one month. It is being published by Cambridge University Press and is titled, The Enablers: How Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America. www.cambridge.org/enablers

As its title suggests, it is not primarily about former President Donald Trump. Rather it is about Trump’s followers. Especially about those who served the president, or in any case went along with whatever he did or said as it pertained to the pandemic, without meaningful dissent.

Despite Trump’s handling of the coronavirus being wretchedly misguided, miserably managed, and shockingly self-interested, the slavish adherence to the chief executive continued during his last year in office. The year during which he presided over the public health crisis, and during which 400,000 Americans died with barely an audible objection either from anyone serving in the administration, or from Trump’s feverishly devoted Republican allies.

Let me now pivot to another book, one in a series of several coming out this summer and fall, all slated to slash the president’s performance, especially though not exclusively during his final 12 months in the White House. So far, this one, titled I Alone Can Fix It, written by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, has gotten the most attention.

The New York Times’ review of the book was mixed. It praised some aspects of it, while summarizing the whole as being “grueling” reading. It’s true, the book is a bit of a slog. It is 578 pages long, which means that for all but the most heavily addicted Trump junkies it provides far more detail than most of us want or need.

I did not read I Alone Can Fix It in its entirety, nor will I. Still, having recently written The Enablers I was struck again, thunderstruck again, by how passive, how servile, how weak, virtually all the main characters other than Trump himself. Just five among a sea of examples:

  • On page 41: “Trump had no idea about the anxiety building [about the virus] among his experts.” Which raises the question of, why not? How could his “experts” have allowed him to “have no idea”? Why did they not force feed the president what they honestly thought? Even if it meant quitting their posts.
  • On page 62: Alex Azar, then in the all-important post of Secretary of Health and Human Services, “tried to sound agreeable and understanding, having learned that when Trump was in a true frenzy, it was better to absorb his rage rather than argue.” Heaven forfend! Take on head on your boss when he’s cranky not to speak of downright mean? Even when your boss is dangerously wrongheaded?!
  • On page 64: Son-in-law and toady-in-law, Jared Kushner, told Azar that Trump picked Vice President Mike Pence to head the coronavirus Task Force “because he wanted someone to focus solely on telling people the virus was under control.” Which, I hardly need add, Pence did.   
  • On page 73: Dr. Robert Redfield, the hapless head of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, had his salary slashed smack in the middle of the virus crisis. Did Redfield object? He did not. Though he later feebly admitted, “I should have known from the beginning this guy [Trump] didn’t have my back.” Surprise, surprise! Trump other than fiercely loyal? Who would’ve guessed?!
  • On page 98: Dr. Deborah Birx was a similarly belittled and derided medical professional. She gamely occupied a “windowless closet of an office,” toiling into the night to serve the country – and President Trump. Was it enough? Not hardly. “Soon, Birx found her access to Trump cut off” – primarily for the original sin of occasionally telling the president that which he did not want to hear. But did she quit? Did she protest? Did she say out loud what she really thought? She did not.

I Alone Can Fix It is full of such small stories. Full of evidence that Trump’s malfeasance was buttressed at every turn by everyone who was in, or in any way close to the administration. It is an irony that though books like these fixate on the leader, they unwittingly testify not just to his importance but to the equal importance of those who followed where he led. As The Enablers makes painfully clear, this is a story not just about leader malpractice, but about follower malpractice.   

Melinda French Gates

In our book, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, Todd Pittinsky and I used Melinda French Gates as a case in point. Though come to think of it…that’s not quite correct. It was Melinda Gates about whom we wrote – not Melinda French Gates. And given we were writing about their lust for legacy primarily as channeled through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we wrote not just about Melinda but also about Bill.

Though our book is recent, we discussed the couple as if they were married, which until just a few months ago they were. Since then, they have separated, and announced they were divorcing. This made them not only the latest power couple to hit the skids, it also threw the future of their $55 billion foundation, a philanthropic juggernaut if ever there was one, into question.

A few days ago, it was reported that Bill and Melinda had agreed on a way forward. They would continue to run the foundation together, as partners, for two years. If they could work well together, they would continue to partner thereafter. If they could not, Bill would effectively pay Melinda off to buy her out.

In the book lust was defined 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.” Lust is, in other words, a lifelong passion, or even obsession.

Leaders who lust for legacy, such as Bill and Melinda, are fixated on what they leave behind after they leave this earth. What they crave is to “to leave an imprint that is permanent.” Which is why it comes as no surprise that divorce or no, so far as their lust for legacy is concerned, nothing has changed. If anything, their impending divorce will only heighten the desire of both Bill and Melinda to leave a legacy that endures.   

Over the years, Melinda French Gates has been largely private, not only about her private life but about her public preferences. While she has made clear her special interest in female empowerment, in addition obviously to the work of the foundation, she continued to operate largely behind the scenes. Invariably, perennially, it was Bill on whom the spotlight shone.

This will now change. Primarily though not exclusively because of her immense wealth, French Gates will inevitably have great power, considerable authority, and significant influence. She will be a leader in her own right – no longer merely her husband’s appendage. She might pour more of her money as well as energy into Pivotal Ventures, an investment vehicle she launched several years ago, dedicated to women’s causes. Or she might not – hard to be certain. She will in any case become an independent agent, which is to say her own lust for legacy will make itself apparent. I’m betting she will get what she now wants above all – to leave her own imprint that is permanent.