Leader Too Long?

Germany’s long-time Chancellor Angela Merkel has been riding high for many years. Widely admired for her political skills, and deeply appreciated for her beneficent temperament, she has been Europe’s paramount leader for well over a decade. Especially given Brexit, and France’s one-time boy wonder, President Emmanuel Macron’s failure to live up to his original promise, Merkel was the only one among Europe’s leaders whose reputation remained untarnished. This is not to say that she was perfect. She was faulted for some of her politics and policies. But, given the difficulties of leading in 21st century liberal democracies, she led exceptionally well.  On every level – political, professional, and personal – she stood out among her peers.

Her winning streak continued throughout 2020, the first year of the pandemic. Merkel was heralded – by me, among others – for her strong performance during the worst of the COVID crisis. In striking contrast to the United States and Great Britain, Germany did well, capitalizing on its prototypical efficiency, and its excellent health care system, to keep the rate of infections, and the number of deaths, relatively low. Moreover, Germans felt fortunate to have at the helm Merkel, who had the unusual attribute of having trained as a scientist before she entered politics.

But when the vaccines came the game changed. Arguably for the first time in her political career, Merkel made a series of serious missteps and so was caught flatfooted. By hitching Germany’s fortunes to those of the European Union, by letting Brussels take the lead rather than controlling vaccine acquisition and distribution from Berlin, she sacrificed German efficiency for the sake of European unity – and it has cost her dearly. Germany, like France, Italy, and other members of the EU are now far behind the United States and, ironically, also Great Britain, in getting their populations that much touted shot in the arm. Ironically, Merkel proved a good leader last year and, so far anyway, a poor manager this one.

Months ago, Merkel announced that after sixteen years in office she will leave the German chancellery this fall. Her recent missteps will not, then, impede her political future. But if Germany’s vaccine rollout continues compromised, it could impede her political legacy. Germans have already been harsh in their judgement. The Financial Times quoted one politician from the port city of Rostock, who summarized the nation’s frustration, “We are the laughingstock of the world. Germany was supposed to be world champion at organizing things and look at us.”  

As I write, only about 11 percent of Germans have received one dose of a vaccine, in contrast to, for example, 45 percent of people in the United Kingdom. A big difference – which has already shown up in public opinion polls. In February, 43% of Germans reported being dissatisfied with their government; one month later this number climbed to 55%.

The reasons for the disillusions are more than just mismanagement of the vaccine rollout. They include issues of corruption and unfairness, of inconsistencies and related reversals. One week everything allowed to be open; the next week everything, every shop, every restaurant, everyplace else, required to be closed. True to her character, Merkel has taken personal responsibility for many of the mistakes. She has apologized more than once not in her own political interest, but to spare her party being blamed for what she prefers to consider the errors of her ways.

There is an additional problem, which is that the pandemic uncovered some of Germany’s longstanding inefficiencies. In a speech to parliament last week, Merkel admitted that the pandemic had exposed “grave weaknesses” in the federal bureaucracy, above all a lack of adequate progress on digitalization. “As a federal system,” she said, “we must get better and faster. We know that and are working on it.”

Something somewhat sad, perhaps, about Europe’s most experienced crisis manager acknowledging that on her long watch progress in an area of paramount importance had lagged. But, also, something uplifting about watching the leader of one of the world’s great democracies assuming responsibility for what went wrong.

So far the Chancellor’s stature remains largely intact. But she is on thin ice or, at least, ice a lot thinner now than six months ago. Which raises these questions: Is Merkel now less sure-footed than she was? Are Merkel’s political instincts now less sharp than they were? Did Merkel stay in her leadership post too long?

I wish Angela Merkel well – she is a remarkable woman who generally has been an exemplary leader. I just hope that her political acumen and acuity do not diminish, for whatever reason, in the home stretch.  

Ex Leaders – the Case of Barack Obama

Do ex leaders, former leaders, have any responsibility at all to their ex followers, their former followers? The answer to this question might be said to depend on the circumstance. So, let me be specific. For the purposes of this piece, I am confining the discussion to presidents of the United States. Do they, after they leave office, have any obligation at all to the American people?

Constitutionally and even politically, of course they do not. In fact, some former presidents – both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush come to mind – have made it a point to be devoutly apolitical once they ended their presidential tenure. Further, unless one is an absolutist, many variables might dictate the answer to my original question of whether American presidents owe the American people anything once they exit the White House.

Here’s an important one: age. Some presidents end their tenures when they are relatively old. Donald Trump, for example, who was 74. Other presidents do so when they are relatively young, such as Barack Obama, who, when he left, January 2017, was relatively young. He was 55, middle-aged, with years, decades left, assuming he remained healthy, of a presumably productive life.      

Obviously, Barack Obama and his wife, former First Lady Michelle Obama, are entitled to do whatever they please. He has more than paid his dues, having served the country with every fiber of his being during eight years in the White House. Still, his near complete withdrawal from the American political firmament is a disappointment.

It was a disappointment during the 2020 presidential campaign, when his involvement was little and late. And it is a disappointment now, when his involvement in the Voting Rights Bill – H.R. 1 – is, so far certainly, tantamount to nonexistent.  Michelle Obama has, at least, lent her name to a group that has taken a stand. This week it sent an open letter to Americans urging them to support the voting rights bill. But Barack Obama? Crickets.

Since he left the White House Obama has made an enormous amount of money through book sales (especially his recent memoir, A Promised Land), speaking engagements, and a highly lucrative deal (along with his wife) with Netflix. He is now worth some $70 and counting. No begrudging him. It’s the American way – we are, after all, capitalists, and proud of it.  

Still, Obama’s silence on H.R. 1 has been deafening. Democrats across the board have said over, and over again, every which way, that this bill is of historic importance and is therefore their priority. (It has already cleared the House; it remains to be passed by the Senate.) Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has repeatedly said that failure to pass it “is not an option.” And President Biden has declared it a “landmark piece of legislation that is urgently needed to protect the right to vote, the integrity of our elections, and to repair and strengthen our democracy.”

So, back to the question: does Obama the former leader owe his former followers anything? Anything on, for example, “this landmark piece of legislation.” Technically obviously no. Morally maybe yes.    

Did Joe Biden Push Kamala Harris to a Glass Cliff?

White House watchers have been waiting for President Biden to give Vice President Harris her own portfolio. To bestow on her a particular policy area for which she would assume complete, direct, responsibility.

Well, he just did. He put her in charge of efforts to slow what is widely perceived the rush, the crush, of migrants along America’s southern border. Her task is twofold, along “two tracks” as one senior administration official put it. First, the immediate task: to stem the current flow of migrants into the U.S.; second, the long-term task, to develop, and implement a strategy to address the root causes of the migrant surge.  Hence the question: did Harris get pushed to a place where no woman should ever want to be?

“Glass cliff” is a term that was coined decades ago as women were starting in somewhat larger numbers to assume leadership roles. It refers to situations in which they ascend to positions of authority – but only those, or at least especially those, in which the risk of failure is clearly high. Women in such positions – women on the glass cliff – are, then, being set up.  Because they are given a task that is perilously close to being no-win, they are saddled with situations in which their prospects for effective leadership have been reduced rather than enhanced.  

Biden has a full plate. Nevertheless, it can safely be said that no single item or issue on his plate is more politically fraught than immigration, especially along the U.S. border with Mexico. It has bedeviled even the well-intentioned for years, with no solution in sight, certainly not an easy one that, in this harsh political climate, comes remotely close to being cost-free.

On the surface Biden has given Harris a chance to shine. She will be, heaven knows, in the national spotlight. And Biden has made clear that “When [Harris] speaks, she speaks for me.”

Still, the position in which the president has put his vice president is perilous. She will be a target. Slings and arrows will be shot at her every day from every direction. She will go against a tide that is not descending but ascending. And, so long as she holds her present portfolio, she will be at the precipice of a glass cliff from which she will have to fight not to fall.  

Follower Failure – Syria’s Silent Spring

This spring marks the tenth anniversary of the Arab Spring. As the name, “Arab Spring,” implies, for many in the Middle East it was a time of a future reimagined – a time of rebirth when throngs in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria thought their governments could and maybe would transition from repressive autocracies to liberal democracies.    

The niceties of its name notwithstanding, in fact the Arab Spring was a series of attempted revolutions: demonstrations and protests by followers in countries throughout the Middle East for the express purpose of overthrowing their leaders. Though initially these pro-democracy movements were peaceful, their intention, however benign in Western eyes, was unmistakable. It was to overthrow the old order and install a new one.

Syria’s president, the ophthalmologist-dictator Bashar al-Assad, had the benefit of being toward the end of the line. When a group of teenagers scrawled on a school wall, “Your turn has come, doctor,” he knew that to save his own neck he’d better put an immediate end to their juvenile but potentially dangerous insurgency. He saw what had happened in nearby Egypt, where an early (February 2011) casualty of the Arab Spring was Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak had been, until he was forced to resign, president of Egypt for fully thirty years. So, given Mubarak’s dramatic fall, Assad did what he felt he had to: arrest the graffiti culprits and torture them for insurrection. He was deliberately intending not only to set an example but to presage the future.       

This triggered the start of the Syrian Revolution – the bloodiest outcome by far of all the countries in which there was such a thing as an Arab Spring. The numbers speak for themselves. Since 2011 some 600,000 Syrians have died, largely at the hands of Assad’s forces and their allies. And nearly one quarter of Syria’s population, some 5.6 million people, have been displaced, most fleeing the country for their safety.    

President Assad, meantime, remains, all these years later, perched on his perch. How it happened that the followers failed while the leader prevailed is complicated. Suffice to say here that there is blame enough to go around, from the United Nations to the United States, a range of players unable to get their act together to preclude so much mayhem, to prevent so much murder.

With one notable though fragile exception – Tunisia – the Arab Spring has failed abysmally to live up to its early promise. But even among the ruins Syria stands out, in part because its ruler then, at the start of the Arab Spring, remains its ruler now. As Professor of Islamic History at Oxford, Christian Sahner, put it, “The bitter truth is that, for all intents and purposes, Mr. Assad has won the war, and the Syrian revolution has failed. He has won by devastating his country and butchering his own people, but he has won all the same.”

III – The Acquisition of Competence

Nature has something to do with it. Some people seem born with the ability to focus, to organize, to think logically and sequentially and keep their eye on the prize. Other people less so. Other people are in this aspect less adroit. Some seem even early in their lives – in school – to have greater difficulty than others staying on task for the purpose of getting the work done. This does not of itself, clearly, make them less smart. But just as clearly their inability, or is it in some their reluctance, to set a goal and then swiftly and efficaciously plan to reach that goal makes them less competent.

What then is a leader, or a would-be leader, to do? There are no courses in competence, no programs designed to teach competence per se. It is not even clear that competence can be taught. If some of us are just born less competent than others – as some of us are just born less musical or mathematical than others – perhaps trying to teach competence is a fool’s errand.

On this are two things to be said. First, if competence is not a leader’s strong suit, best he or she acknowledge it and compensate. Compensate by bringing on board talent in competence. People who are good at setting a goal, and even better at knowing how goals can be reached. In fact, even competent leaders are well advised to surround themselves with competent followers, competence being a skill, or a trait, or a characteristic of considerable consequence.

Second, if competence is not a leader’s strong suit, best he or she acknowledge it and compensate. In this instance compensate by 1) acquiring competence- consciousness; 2) acquiring contextual-consciousness; and 3) acquiring experiential-consciousness.  

  1. Competence-consciousness = understanding and appreciating the importance of competence.  
  2. Contextual-consciousness = understanding and appreciating the importance of context(s).
  3. Experiential-consciousness = understanding and appreciating the important of experience.

This last is of particular importance. I earlier mentioned music and math as areas of expertise in which some of us likely are born more gifted than others. For example, I know about myself that I could practice the piano eight hours a day and never be an especially good pianist. But if I did practice piano eight hours a day, I would be a better pianist than if I practiced only one hour a day. Practice is tantamount to experience. Practice, experience, are contributors to competence.

By the time President Joe Biden reached the White House he had decades of experience in Washington, decades of practice at politics. No wonder he is a competent president. Conversely, when Donald Trump reached the White House, he had not a single day of experience in Washington, or a single day of practice at politics. No wonder among his deficits as president was complete incompetence.          

II – The Content of Competence

Competence can be defined as the ability to do something successfully and, additionally, efficiently. To do something successfully suggests being able to accomplish the task at hand. To do something efficiently suggests being able to accomplish the task at hand with a minimum of fuss and bother, and a maximum of certitude and speed.

To be competent is to know what you are doing. To be competent is about setting a goal, but equally it is about knowing how to reach it. To be competent is to start something and finish it in good time.

President Joe Biden has been in office for less than two months. As I wrote in my previous post, during this brief time the Biden administration has been able to accomplish two astonishing feats: first, producing and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine faster than anyone dared hope just a few weeks ago; second, passing a 1.9 trillion-dollar relief bill that the president is expected to sign this week. (The House has yet to pass the now somewhat revised Senate bill, but passage is near certain.) Two very high bars put in place – two very two very high bars cleared swiftly and efficaciously.

Does this mean that President Joe Biden is a genius? Does this mean that President Joe Biden is a heroic leader, or an inspiring leader, or a charismatic leader? No – none of the above. What it does mean is that Biden is obviously, demonstrably, a competent leader.

This is not to suggest that on every issue or every public policy he will display a similarly high level of competence. What it does suggest is that he is a leader who has the capacity to set a goal – an important goal at that – and the further capacity to ascertain how to reach it. This means that he is a leader capable of grasping how to get from point A to point B and, additionally, grasping who should navigate the route.  In sum, to be competent is to be able to 1) set a consequential goal; and 2) decide how that goal can best and fastest be reached.  

Note that the word “competence” is like the word “leadership.” It is, or it should be, value free. To say that someone is good at setting a goal and then reaching it is to say nothing whatsoever about the quality of that goal – about whether it is good or bad, worthy, or unworthy. To take an extreme example, during the years 1933-1939 Adolf Hitler was a highly competent leader. He set Nazi Germany several wide-reaching and far-ranging goals, and he was able in remarkably short order to reach them. Ergo, competence does not equal, is not tantamount to, virtuousness.  

Still, in general, competence in a leader is an asset in a leader. So long as it is paired with a modicum of intelligence and integrity, decency, and empathy, we can safely assume that leaders who are competent will do far better by their followers than leaders who are not.  

This might seem obvious. But the inconvenient truth is that competence remains rather dowdy an attribute. Even now, post President Donald Trump, we Americans should have learned our lesson. But it is not yet clear that we did.     

I – The Importance of Competence

Former President Donald Trump gets credit for Operation Warp Speed – the U.S. government program kickstarted in May 2020 to develop, manufacture, and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Remarkably, vaccines were developed by the time Trump left office. But America’s chief executive was so fixated on losing the November election that on this single, but also singular success he never took the credit he deserved.

In every other way Trump’s leadership and management of the pandemic was miserably poor. During his administration the United States, with just over 4 % of the world’s total population, had well over 20 % of the world’s total cases of COVID. And a month after Trump left office the U.S. reached the half million mark – more than 500,000 Americans dead of COVID.

Now, in the brief time since President Joe Biden took office, the situation has been reversed. From being one of the world’s poorest performers, the U.S. has transformed into one of the world’s best. Specifically, when ranked according to how many people have been vaccinated against COVID-19, the United States is doing very well. This is by no means a done deal – the U.S. still has a long way to go before it can claim the pandemic is history.

Still, here some comparisons.

  • Israel, by this measure the world’s best performing country, though a very small one, has (as of today) already vaccinated 55.8 % of its total population.
  • The U.S. has vaccinated only 17. 5 % of its total population. However, compare this number with Germany’s. In 2020 Germany managed the pandemic remarkably well. But, to date, only 5.9 % of Germans have been vaccinated. In France, the numbers are even worse. Only 5.6 % of French people have received even a single shot in the arm.

What accounts for this remarkable American turnaround? Setting aside the astonishing fact that the Biden administration is about to sign into law the largest fiscal relief bill in American history, how has it happened that the president and his team have done so well on vaccine production, and distribution in so short a time in office?  One word – competence.

Competence is the most underrated word in the leadership lexicon. Why? Two reasons. First because it is pedestrian – competence sounds tedious. Who among us wants a competent leader when we can have a heroic leader? Or an inspiring leader? Or a charismatic leader? Second, because competence sounds more in the realm of management than leadership.

I have written before about problems resulting from our constant confusing the words “leadership” and “management.” Underplaying the importance of competence is one of them. No use having a leader who is heroic or inspiring or charismatic if he or she is not, also, competent.

Leaders do not themselves have to be competent. But if they are not, they must know what they don’t know to assemble a competent team. A team that is both willing and able to carry out the leader’s promise, realize the leader’s plan, implement the leader’s policy. Absent these, please spare me the grand ambitions, the soaring rhetoric, and the false prophesy of the American dream.         

Old Leaders

I refer not to leaders who are old figuratively, or metaphorically. But to leaders who are old literally. To people in high places who are close to or over 75 years of age, or even over 80. There are fewer old leaders in business than in government – certainly in the United States – for which there are some obvious reasons. But there are many old leaders in governments around the world, including in the United States.

Far be it from me to say that old people in high places invariably present a problem. I am not exactly a spring chicken myself. Nor do I suggest that leaders over 75 are, by definition, ill equipped physically, psychologically, or cognitively to do the heavy lifting required of leaders, especially those in powerful posts. What I argue instead is that if too many old leaders preclude too few young leaders from replacing them, we have a problem. They range from having too many leaders who are old, tired, and rigid to having too few who are young, energetic, and adaptive. From having too many leaders who are largely ignorant of some of the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to the new technologies, to having too few leaders who are deeply informed about the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to the new technologies.

A 34-year-old woman, Arora Akanksha, who came effectively out of nowhere – she has worked at the United Nations for just four years – has declared herself a candidate to be the UN’s next secretary general. If she proceeds as expected she will be challenging Antonio Guterres, who is 71 years old. I do not especially advocate her candidacy. But is it time for the United Nations to get entirely new leadership? To be pulled kicking and screaming into the 21st century? To address what this fresh-faced challenger to the existing order charges is an organization that is wasteful and adrift, patronizing, and paternalistic? Whatever her deficits, and whatever Guterres’s assets, none can question the United Nations is a grievous disappointment, light years from achieving its original high-minded ideals.  Is it possible that an unending series of old or oldish male leaders are at fault for its being so miserably stuck? It is.

The problem to which I refer has long been in evidence in Japan, said to be ruled, effectively since time immemorial, by an “old men’s club.” Is this now starting, finally, to change? Maybe, at least at the margins. Recently an online petition started by women mushroomed into what the New York Times described as a “vociferous social media campaign.” It ended dislodging 83-year-old Olympic leader, Yoshiro Mori, and, additionally, precluding him from picking another octogenarian, another man, as his successor. Mori was, of course, a symbol of a society that forever has had its most powerful and prestigious posts held by men, many if not most old, now in their 70s, 80s, and even into their 90s.

President Joe Biden is 78 years of age. Former president Trump is 74 years of age. Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell is 79 years of age. Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi will soon be 81 years of age. And when Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last year, she was still serving on the Supreme Court, at age 87.  

Time in the United States – indeed everywhere, at least in the so-called developed world – to consider term limits? Even age limits? The year of COVID-19 has been a blip – in 2020 the life expectancy of Americans slightly declined. But in the main we have been living longer and are likely to continue living even longer still. In 2021 the life expectancy for American men is over 76 years of age, and for American women over 81. Given this means many more of us will be living into our eighties and nineties, the implications for leaders are clear. We should set limits on leaders leading too long and maybe even too late.

Why Followers Follow Leaders Who Lust for Power

In the second impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump a large majority of Senate Republicans voted as they did in the first impeachment trial – to acquit. This time on the charge of inciting insurrection. But unlike the first time when only one Senator voted guilty, the second time seven Senate Republicans found Trump guilty as charged. Not many – but given the circumstance rather a large number.

What exactly is this circumstance? One in which most of the seven will pay a heavy political, and personal price for deviating from the party line. For example, one prominent Louisiana Republican called his fellow Republican, Bill Cassidy, who voted guilty, “a Senator without a party.” The North Carolina Republican Party Central Committee held an emergency meeting for the sole purpose of voting unanimously to censure their dissident senator, Richard Burr, who similarly had found Trump guilty as charged. And the Wyoming Republican Party censured Congresswoman Liz Cheney, the third highest ranking Republican in the House, for having had the temerity to vote to impeach the the still venerated – or is it feared? – Donald Trump.

Leaders are supposed to have a range of admirable attributes. One of these is moderation. But as former president Trump demonstrates, even out of the Oval Office, leadership and moderation go hand in hand only some of the time. Other times, they do not. In fact, sometimes leadership is exemplified by the unbridled behaviors that leaders today are instructed to shun. Moreover, followers can be and often are attracted to leaders who are extreme. To leaders who are immoderate, who blatantly and even brazenly behave in ways that are at the end of a spectrum.

          The fact that overwhelmingly Republican Senators have stuck with Trump during his time in the White House is testimony to his inordinately strong and enduring popularity. Especially, obviously, among members of his base, ordinary people who self-identify as Republicans and who continue even now to stand by their man. Which raises – or it should – the question of why. Given that Trump evidenced an overweening desire to hold on to power – even after he demonstrably lost the November election – what was it about him, what is it about him, that makes him still attractive, appealing to large numbers of the American people? Why would anyone want to follow a leader with an insatiable appetite to dominate?    

          The literature on followers, on followership, remains scant. But it is not non- existent. There is evidence to suggest why followers are drawn to leaders who want to dominate everything and everyone. This evidence applies not only to leaders in the public sector, like Trump and authoritarian counterparts such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. It applies as well to leaders in the private sector, such as, for example, the late Roger Ailes who controlled Fox News with the proverbial iron fist, and Elon Musk, who is a one-man band not just within Tesla but without.     

          Sometimes followers resist, of course, or, if they have the option, they even rebel. But other times followers freely and even eagerly remain where they are. The remain subordinate to a superior who craves power precisely because in most cases even these leaders provide benefits. Sometimes considerable benefits.

Followers are no fools. They receive, or they perceive they receive benefits both as individuals and as members of groups. Leaders satisfy our needs for safety and security. Leaders satisfy our needs for identity and community. And leaders satisfy our needs for ideological affinity, professional advancement, political connection, emotional gratification, and interpersonal satisfaction. Finally, leaders relieve us of the responsibility of running things. We pay them to protect us from harm. We pay them to make sure our paychecks are secure. We pay them to get the trains to run on time.

          Leaders who lust for power are no exception to the general rule – actually, they exemplify the general rule. Even in situations where followers are not free to leave – for example, they live in a country run by a leader who lusts for power, or they are stuck in a job in which their superior lusts for power – they are likely in some way to benefit even from having a leader hellbent on keeping control.

Since he came to power in 2013, most experts judge China’s president, Xi Jinping, to have evolved from authoritarian to totalitarian. However, during this same period Xi led his country in ways that rewarded his people with, for example, a surging economy, a strengthened military, and newfound power the world over. Similarly, Roger Ailes, the media mogul who built Fox News into a media powerhouse. By every account Ailes was inordinately difficult to work for. Intrusive and intimidating, coarse and crude, impossibly demanding and relentlessly bullying. Moreover, toward the end of his career it came out that he had tolerated a culture of sexual harassment. Yet subordinates, including many women, stayed, in this case freely, year after year, willingly subjecting themselves to Ailes’s tyrannical ways. Again, why? Because they calculated it was in their self-interest to do so. Motivated by attractions such as professional advancement, accumulation of money, proximity to power, and a glamorous industry, Ailes’s followers voluntarily engaged in a trade-off. They surrendered at least some of their integrity and independence to gamble that, in exchange, they would be rewarded personally, as well as professionally and financially.

          Counterintuitive it may be. But some followers want leaders who lust for power. Other followers accept without question leaders who lust for power. And still other followers put up with leaders who lust for power for reasons they deem good and sound. The point is that contrary to the conventional wisdom that permeates the leadership industry, followers are attracted to leaders who lust. Not all the time, but some of the time. Often enough that attention must be paid.      

“The Education of a Leader”

The title of this post is the same as the title of the review of a book written by H. W. Brands for the Wall Street Journal.* Brands was reviewing Michael Gerhardt’s new volume, Lincoln’s Mentors.  

The book is an account of Lincoln as autodidact. Crucially, Brands writes, Lincoln did not stop learning at his first inauguration. “Until the very end of his life his self-education never ceased.” Moreover, precisely because he was largely unschooled, “he benefited from not knowing what a person was supposed to learn.” Lincoln presumed, in other words, that he ought to learn everything.     

As the title of Gerhardt’s book suggests, it is focused largely on Lincoln’s mentors, five men who at various points in the president’s life served as role models, or guides, for Lincoln to emulate or follow. The point is that Lincoln remained till he died “educable.” Able to live and learn lifelong in ways that testified to his capacity to grow lifelong.

Which raises the question of what does the leadership industry do to further similar learnings over a leader’s life? The immediate response might be – well, the industry already does a lot. There are numberless leadership courses and programs, leadership centers and institutes, leadership exercises and excursions deliberately designed with adult audiences in mind. In fact, many if not most leadership initiatives are targeted precisely at people who already are leaders, or managers, intended to teach them what they do not yet know about how to lead wisely and well.

But, overwhelmingly, these are one-shot deals. Designed to catch a leader at a particular moment in time. Over a year, maybe, or a semester, or a week or a weekend. Most are designed for adult learning, yes. But most are not designed for adult learning lifelong.

What I am suggesting then is a new kind of leadership education. One designed for most leaders in that most leaders are not, like Lincoln, autodidacts. Most leaders are like most people: they profit from programs intended to teach them things they do not know because otherwise they would not know them. In this case what I am proposing is a pedagogy that is deliberately designed to be sustained.