Walter Russell Mead just wrote a timely piece for the Wall Street Journal (link below) in which he stated the now nearly obvious: that not since the “end of the Cold War have so many crises erupted in so many places.” Russia’s seizure of Crimea (which redrew the map of Europe); continuing conflict in Ukraine; China’s aggression in the South China seas; terrorism in Nigeria; and the surge in jihadist violence over a land mass that stretches from Syria to Iraq – all indications the liberal world order faces challenges daunting to the point of overwhelming.

What is less obvious is Mead’s second point, which is that mayhem and murder the world over fly in the face of the American disposition, which is to believe that in this best of all possible worlds everything will be for the best. It’s true: for various reasons, both historical and contemporaneous, Americans are congenitally disposed to believe that people are good and that, again to quote Mead, “win-win solutions are easily found and that world history is moving inexorably toward a better and more peaceful place.”

This congenital disposition was reinforced during the last decade of the 20th century – in hindsight a holiday from history. The Soviet Union had collapsed. Communism was dead and gone. The U.S. was prosperous and at peace – and it seemed destined indefinitely to remain the sole superpower in a world increasingly liberal and democratic.

Curiously, America’s founders were not so blinkered. They knew better. They knew to structure a government based not on the assumption that man (woman) was good, but that he (she) was likely as not to be bad. Not only was the system replete with checks and balances to preclude any single individual or small group from seizing power. More important was the underlying assumption: it was that human nature was, at best, fickle. As James Madison put it the Federalist, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

I wrote a book titled, Bad Leadership. And, a handful of my colleagues, experts in leadership, did something similar: they wrote about the dark side of leadership and, yes, followership, in order to explore and explain situations such as the one the U. S. is in now. In order to explore and explain the gamut of being bad, from being a bad boss to being a totalitarian tyrant; from being a Bystander follower, who stands by and does nothing, to being a Diehard follower, who freely, willingly, even eagerly supports a leader who is evil.

But we are much in the minority. Overwhelmingly the leadership industry is, like Americans more generally, disposed to focus exclusively on developing good leaders, while ignoring altogether the question of how to stop or at least slow bad leaders. In a time such as this one, in a time in which the United States is beleaguered on all sides, such a lop-sided approach to leadership education is misguided as it is misleading. Those of us who till this soil owe it to our students, to our clients, to those who turn to us as experts, to see the world as it is – not as we would prefer it to be.


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