Contagion – Bad Leadership

Bad leadership is toxic. Toxic not only within but without. Like a virus that’s highly contagious, bad leadership can spread, quickly and efficiently, from one place to another.

We saw this in Europe, in the years before the Second World War, when not only fascism but associated toxins such as anti-Semitism started first in one country and then spread to another, and then to still others. In fact, we have seen this in Europe even in recent years, especially in East Europe, where, to the astonishment of its West European counterparts, autocracies have replaced democracies.

The poisonousness contagiousness of bad leadership comes to mind again now, watching China’s behavior, Xi Jinping’s behavior, just in the last six months. I have written elsewhere about Xi’s lust for power.* Here I will point out only that in the recent past this lust has not only not been stilled, quelled, it has been revived, reinvigorated.

Why has this been so? Why after years in power did Xi decide recently to clamp down on Hong Kong? Why after years in power did Xi decide recently totally to squelch his political opposition? Why after years in power did Xi decide recently aggressively to take on China’s most powerful and prominent industrialist, Alibaba founder, Jack Ma? Why now? Why has Xi been far more aggressive and oppressive in the recent past than he was in the more distant past?

Paramount among the several reasons is one. Because the United States – the only country in the world that rivals China in power and influence – has been hobbled if not crippled by bad leadership. Bad leadership that has led to the U.S. now facing four crises simultaneously: 1) a public health crisis; 2) an economic crisis; 3) a social justice crisis: and 4) a governance crisis.

Bad leadership is why Americans have been consumed, completely, by themselves. This has allowed it, bad leadership, to spread. In fact, if this keeps up, look to Putin to copy Xi, to harden his fist not only at home but abroad.      


*Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy (Co-authored with Todd Pittinsky, Cambridge University Press, 2020).              

“The Hero in History”*

One of the longest standing of the many debates among experts on leadership is the so-called “hero in history” debate. The debate about the importance of single individuals. About how much of a difference any single leader can make.

At one end of the spectrum has been the British philosopher and historian, Thomas Carlyle, who wrote in 1841 that history is “at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones.” At the other end was another nineteenth century Brit, this one the sociologist Herbert Spencer, who thought that what Carlyle wrote was poppycock. Who thought that if you look more closely at history, you will see that Carlyle’s theory about the great man “breaks down completely.”

Leo Tolstoy was another skeptic – he did not believe that even the greatest of men made history. “The actions of Napoleon and Alexander,” he wrote in War and Peace, “were as little voluntary as the actions of any soldier…. We are forced to fall back on fatalism as an explanation of irrational events.”   

More contemporaneous was the American philosopher Sidney Hook, who in his 1943 book, The Hero in History, distinguished between “the eventful man” and “the event-making man.” The eventful man is the person, the leader, who is simply in the right place at the right time. The event-making man, in contrast, is the “Great Man.” The leader who is not merely, as Spencer and Tolstoy would have it, history’s pawn, but history’s piper. The event-making man is a mover and a shaker. He is a genuine leader who controls not only his own destiny but the destinies of others. Of his followers, maybe millions, caught voluntarily, or involuntarily, in his vortex.

Donald Trump is an event-making man. This is not to say that he is not also a product of the times in which we live. A reflection of the history that preceded him – and a reflection of his base. Of the 74 million Americans who voted for him in November, many of whom would follow even now, no matter where he led.

But, for the last four years Trump has sucked the air out of the room. He has consumed us, shaped the American experience and experiment. Moreover, he continues to so even now, notwithstanding he has been beaten and bloodied, with just a week left in office, if that.  Who then can counter Carlyle or for that matter Hook? Who can doubt that on rare occasion there is such a thing as a “great man”? An “event-making man”? Not me. 


 *The Hero in History debate has presumed the leader a man. For the purposes of this essay, I use this convention.


The original novel – titled Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus – was by Mary Shelley. It was about a young scientist named Victor Frankenstein who created a creature that was a humanoid.

Over time though the story was distorted. The first distortion was the creature – not the creature maker – came to be called “Frankenstein.” The second distortion was the creature became a monster. The third distortion was that Frankenstein, now a monster, had a mind of his own. He could no longer be controlled by anyone – least of all by the one, by those, who originally created him.

Shelley’s novel, then, evolved. It became in time a morality tale. Beware the monster you make for someday it might, likely it will, turn on you.

Leaders Who Lust – Bezos and Musk Separated at Birth

OK, they’re not twins. Jeff Bezos was born in 1964 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Elon Musk was born in 1971 in Pretoria, South Africa. Still, Bezos and Musk are strikingly similar in strikingly similar ways. They are leaders who lust. Further they are leaders who lust in just the same way for just the same thing.

In my recent book (coauthored with Todd Pittinsky) titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, lust was described as a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object, or to secure a circumstance. But when the object has been obtained or the circumstance secured, whatever the relief, it is brief. Lust, then, suggests a fervor to acquire, achieve, or consume that is out of the ordinary – that is so extreme it is extraordinary.

As the subtitle of the book makes clear, six different types of lust were identified as especially applicable to people who lead. In other words, people who lead are sometimes driven to lead because they have an insatiable appetite for power, or money, or sex, or success, or legitimacy, or legacy. These types are not mutually exclusive. But one or another object of desire does dominate.     

In the case of Bezos and Musk it can safely be said that both lust for success. But success is not the type of lust – nor for that matter is money – that in their case stands out. If it did, they would be content, certainly now, to stick to what they know. In 2020 Bezos’s Amazon stock went up an extraordinary 75%. And in 2020 Musk’s Tesla stock climbed an astronomical 700%. But neither man is satisfied either with singular success or for that matter with a pile of money. Bezos and Musk both want more. What they want – in contrast to virtually every other living leader – is not merely to conquer the earth but the moon and the stars.     

In Leaders Who Lust the lust for legacy was defined as longing, effectively lifelong, to leave an imprint that is permanent. Which brings us to, in Bezos’s case, his other company, Blue Origin. And, in Musk’s case, his other company, SpaceX. Both were founded by men obviously not content to go down in history as among the greatest American entrepreneurs and business leaders ever. They are, after all, leaders who lust, to leave a legacy. Which is precisely why both are hellbent on leaving an imprint that is unprecedented – an imprint in space.   

Three years ago, Bezos announced that he would be selling a billion dollars a year of Amazon stock to finance Blue Origin’s research and development. (He founded the company in 2000.) In November 2020 Blue Origin launched (again) and then successfully landed (again) its New Shepard rocket and capsule for the purpose of verifying its safety – in preparation for one day having passengers on board.  Musk, in turn, “choked up with emotion” in October 2020 after SpaceX’s spacecraft, the Crew Dragon, with four astronauts on board, successfully arrived at the International Space Station.   

The striking successes of Amazon continue – and likely will for years to come – to overshadow Blue Origin. Similarly, the striking successes of Tesla continue – and likely will for years to come – to overshadow SpaceX. Still, make no mistake. To the end of their days both Bezos and Musk will be driven by their individualistic, idiosyncratic, and identical lust to leave a legacy – one that can more enduringly be satisfied in outer space than on planet earth.  

Leadership in Liberal Democracies III – Who Leads? Who Should Not? Now What?

Though he will not be president much longer, Donald Trump is continuing to exercise his prerogatives as chief executive. Which is to say that he is continuing to lead the American people to unnecessary chaos and unprecedented corruption.

One might even venture that the president is exhibiting a sadistic streak. For while he is ostentatiously playing golf, he is causing countless Americans to endure hardship over the holidays for lack of knowing how, or even if they will be able to stay in their homes, keep the heat on, put food on the table.

Again, the torment is needless, a heedless intrusion on an agreement reached (tortuously) by Congress to ensure a modicum of stability for legions of people for months to come. In fact, as I write, unemployment benefits have lapsed – Trump’s doing, single-handed.

So, again, the question I ask often: What is to be done? How to get rid of a leader who is bad? It will not suffice to respond in this instance, “Hang on, hang in, Trump is almost out the door.” It will not suffice first because even in his remaining weeks the president can do damage. And it will not suffice second because it avoids the larger question of how we can repair a system that as it stands is ill-equipped to self-correct?  

The 25th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1967. It deals with presidential disability and succession. It was intended to make it feasible to remove from office presidents who are disabled to the point of being unable responsibly to carry out their duties.

Section Four of the amendment pertains directly to this discussion. Its rather vague and open-ended language is intended, in part, to be used in those cases in which the president’s unfitness to hold office is contested by the president himself. What has become clear over time is that this contestation might well arise regarding a physical impairment – and that it might even more readily arise regarding a mental impairment. In other words, the system works well if the president is fine with what common sense would dictate. It does not work well or even at all if the president is not. Moreover, if the problem is psychological as opposed to physical, the likelihood that a president would readily or even reasonably acquiesce to prevailing opinion is slim to none.  

Bottom line is we are stuck. For various reasons ranging from the political to the psychological, from the legal to the medical, the American people have no exit. No way out from under a president who is bad.

Does this mean that there is nothing to be done? No, it does not. What it does mean though is that the act of electing a president must be much, much more careful and considered. And what it similarly means is that the system must be fixed so it is far, far better prepared to protect itself against leaders who are as unethical as they are incompetent.

We have learned in the last four years that we cannot depend on the better angels of our nature getting the better of those who are not. This means it’s up to us to fix what’s broke.

Leadership in Liberal Democracies II – Who Leads? Who Should?

It is presumed a given that nations are led by men and women specifically tasked with leading them. In liberal democracies these designated few are politicians who rise to the highest rank – typically presidents or prime ministers, chancellors or premiers. Which raises the question of whether other people in prominent positions of authority – such as chief executive officers of large corporations, presidents of colleges and universities, heads of religious institutions and professional organizations – have a role to play in leading the nations within which their institutions and organizations are situated.

Should, for example, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors; or Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft; or Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, be expected to speak out if they find an American president to be severely lacking? Similarly, what about Larry Bacow, president of Harvard University; or Audrey Bilger, president of Reed College; or Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan? Should they remain mum when the American government goes badly wrong? And what about Patricia Lee Refo, president of the American Bar Association; or Rory Gamble, president of the United Auto Workers; or Paula McClain, president of the American Political Science Association? Do they have an obligation to say something if they believe that their country is going extremely astray? And, even if they do say something some of the time, do they have a responsibility to do more – to make their voices heard clearly, consistently, and constantly, and even to organize on behalf of what they have come to believe?

I am not claiming that people such as these never say a word about our national politics. Nor do I deny that they need be careful about what they say and do lest they and, worse, the entities they lead are seen to have been politicized and, therefore, compromised. I get that being neutral is being safe.

Still, when a situation is extreme, staying safe will not suffice. Ergo, when a national leader is demonstrably and even dangerously corrupt and inept, other leaders in other places have a moral duty, and a civic responsibility, to step up and speak out. History has taught us – or it should have – that there are times when remaining silent is becoming complicit.  

Leadership in Liberal Democracies I – In Shambles

Israel’s governing coalition collapsed yesterday – primarily though not exclusively because of corruption charges against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This means that on March 23rd Israelis will have no less than their fourth national election in two years.

Great Britain meanwhile is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Though he is to blame only in part, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not exactly distinguished himself during his eighteen months in office. Bad luck to have to manage a once-in-a-century pandemic. More bad luck to have to manage a once-in-a-century self-inflicted wound – Brexit. Still, Johnson’s leadership has been pockmarked by vacillation and vainglory. Notwithstanding the 11th hour deal on Brexit between the United Kingdom and the European Union, Johnson remains under assault.

France is another liberal democracy in which the leader has struggled. In this case President Emmanuel Macron, who only a few years ago was hailed as a leader for our times: young and attractive, whip smart and broadly educated, widely experienced and, especially, a bridge-builder between the deeply entrenched French left and the hardcore French right. But the system has chewed him up too. Among his many headaches his battle against Islamic extremism: it has pushed him further to the right than anyone, likely including Macron himself, anticipated.        

Germany has been, under the near-exemplary 15-year leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, an exception to the general rule. It has been a bastion of good leadership in a liberal democracy during an era in which such a feat was becoming alarmingly anomalous. However, in less than a year she will have vacated her post. And even she will bestow on her successor a major problem: a resurgence of far-right extremism that is “horrifying a country” that has prided itself on dealing honestly with its murderous past.*

About the United States under President Donald Trump there is little that has not already been said – including by me. Suffice to say here that his leadership continues even during his waning days in office to be catastrophically bad. The likelihood that he will have survived four full years in the White House is testimony then not only to the fact that leadership in liberal democracies is under stress – but also to the fact that we have no idea whatsoever what to do about it.

Bad leadership and followership remain a social disease for which we have no cure. Good leadership and followership in liberal democracies remain a challenge the mid-twentieth-first century has yet to meet.


*New York Times, December 21, 2020

Limit Leaders!

America’s experience with President Donald Trump has demonstrated yet again how miserably ill-prepared we are to push from their perch leaders who are bad. Leaders who have shown no capacity for leading either wisely or well. Given this inability to protect ourselves against leaders like these we rely on systems to save us. For example, we have depended on regular presidential elections to replace presidents who are bad with presidents who are good or, at least, better.   

From time to time, however, the system is revealed as inadequate to the task. It is widely agreed, for instance, that the electoral college is no way to pick a president – that it should be eliminated in favor of a direct popular vote. Trouble is the electoral college is deeply entrenched. It goes back to the beginning of the Republic, and strong political interests defend it no matter its deficits.

A different matter is the approximately eleven-week stretch between the day American presidents are elected and the day they are inaugurated. Inauguration day used to be even later – originally it was in March. But in 1933 it was moved to January 20, where it has stayed ever since.

Most countries have no such yawning gap. In most countries newly elected leaders take office within a couple of weeks – in Great Britain it is the next day. Still, the United States persists in maintaining its antiquated system, in which the length of time between casting a vote and implementing that vote is atypically long.

The reason given for the extended transition is to ensure it will be smooth. For the outgoing administration to have sufficient time to show the incoming administration how to run the railroad. Well, in the heyday of the railroad this might have made sense. Now it no longer does. In fact, as the current transition has evidenced, the risks of prolonging the time of the changeover are considerable.

I need not spell out here why this year’s transition from one administration to the next has been especially deleterious. The real point in any case is a larger one. It is that given how miserably bad we are at removing bad leaders, whatever reasonable measures we can take to shore up our systemic defenses against them ought to be implemented.     

Putin Patrol Continued….*

America’s President Donald Trump has done Russia’s President Vladimir Putin several favors. The biggest of these is to distract the American people from Putin’s aggressions and transgressions. Americans have spent the last four years so obsessed with Trump that Putin has been left alone, largely free to do what he pleased when he pleased. Every now and then the Europeans scream and yell, but without American muscle to back them up they remain powerless to stop the Russian bear from behaving badly.

Recent examples:

  • The just revealed SolarWinds supply chain attack was by all accounts among the most significant breaches of U.S. government agencies ever. While the precise scope and nature of the hack remains unclear, what is clear is that departments such as Treasury, State, and Commerce were among those compromised, along with the Pentagon. What seems similarly clear – though not yet officially confirmed – is that the attackers were Russian. The group thought to be responsible is known as “Cozy Bear.” It is associated with Russian intelligence, and known to have carried out the 2016 attack against the Democratic National Committee.  
  • The evidence that Russian agents were responsible for executing the murderous attack against Aleksei Navalny, by far Russia’s best-known dissident and for years a serious thorn in Putin’s side, continues to accumulate. This week the New York Times reported a research group specializing in open-source investigations had found that “officers from a secret spy unit with expertise in poisonous substances” had trailed Navalny for years and “were nearby at the time he was exposed to a highly toxic nerve agent that almost killed him last summer.” No great surprise here – Russian agents have long been known for poisoning Putin’s political opponents. (Navalny nearly died but did not. He continues however still to recover in Germany.) Still, attention must be paid.
  • At home Putin is tightening the screws on those who show signs of refusing to fall into line. Given his level of popularity is down from what it was, and given intermittent signs of growing domestic restiveness, and given the resistance movements in other countries, Putin is clearly getting edgy – nervous lest the opposition get out of hand. To preclude this possibility his government is proposing a slew of new laws, all targeted at those who might have the temerity to take him on ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections. As one observer put it, a woman associated with Human Rights Watch, the proposed new laws would “enable the government to designate individuals as foreign agents, …basically barring them from participating in elections.” She continued, “The government clearly aims to stifle civil society.”    

Any one of these three recent developments should be anathema to Americans – the chief executive above all. But as is well known by now – though the reasons conspicuously are not – this American president has given that Russian president a pass.

My hope is those days are over. Even if the next administration does nothing, it damn straight can say something.


*”Putin Patrol” pieces have been featured regularly on this post for years.