That Rare Bird – A Leader Truly Transformational

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I’ve gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

In 1978, seminal leadership scholar, James MacGregor Burns, came out with his magnum opus on leadership, titled, simply, Leadership. Though it is read now less frequently than it was, it nevertheless endures as one of the few utterly serious efforts by an utterly serious leadership scholar to develop leadership theory grounded in history.

Perhaps Burns’ most significant contribution – it was, in any case, the one to which more scholars and students resonated than any other – was the distinction he made between transactional leadership and transforming leadership. Transactional leadership occurs,” he wrote, “when one person takes the initiative in making contact with others for the purpose of an exchange of valued things.” Transforming leadership, in contrast, “occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and follower raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality.” Their purposes become fused.  

What comes through is the premium Burns placed on transforming leadership. Unlike transactional leadership, which was pedestrian, commonplace, transforming leadership was, by definition, exceptional, uncommon. Even considering this criterion, I like to think he would have concurred – that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is such a leader. That she is that rare bird, a leader who well and truly has transformed.

I have written about Merkel before, including in this space. So, I will not now touch on her past. Instead I will say only that in her case, the present confirms the past. It confirms that history will judge the Chancellor a transformational leader – even by the exceedingly high bar set by Professor Burns.  

Even before this year she might reasonably have been considered transformational – if only on the grounds of her refugee policy . But 2020 further confirms her greatness.  First, no country in the world is better positioned than is Germany to emerge from the pandemic. Along with a handful of others such as Taiwan and New Zealand, it is managing the plague better than any other place on the planet.

Second, contrary to all expectations, Merkel made a U-turn on the European Union. After years of opposing giving Europe’s poorer countries what she perceived as handouts from Europe’s richest, she agreed to provide an enormous economic post Covid-19 rescue package to, effectively, prevent the European Union from going under. It is not too much to say that if the European Union survives, not to speak of thrives, it will be Merkel who, along with her sometime partner, French president Emmanuel Macron, gets most of the credit. I am a staunch Europeanist. So, to my way of thinking this alone merits Merkel’s place in the pantheon of great leaders. Or, as Burns would have it, of leaders who have been transforming.

Xi Jinping – a Leader Who Lusts

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I’ve gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

When Todd Pittinsky and I wrote the above referenced book we looked for two cases for each of the six types of lust. These cases would be used as exemplars of what we meant when we wrote about, for example, lust for power, or money, or sex.

The book was updated during the first half of 2020, though mostly it was written in 2019. We could not know then what we know now. That Xi Jinping, who we had already pegged as having evolved from an authoritarian leader into a totalitarian one, would just a few months later become even more power hungry that he already demonstrably was. He is a leader – as Churchill said of Hitler – whose appetite grows with eating!

In the last few weeks Xi has moved full speed ahead. He is visibly insatiable, more unabashedly hungry for power even than he was before, which means he is ready to risk global censure to get what he wants when he wants it. This includes most obviously Hong Kong. His zeal to exert over its denizens his own total rule is why Beijing just violated a longstanding agreement that promised them a measure of autonomy for years yet to come. But it also includes aggressive if not threatening behaviors toward a range of other countries, including Canada, Australia, and India. Above all there is China’s increasingly menacing stance vis a vis Taiwan, for which what just happened in Hong Kong could well be a prelude. None of this is even to speak of his repressions within China, most onerously of the Uighurs, but also of the Chinese people more generally, the large majority of whom seem, however, to have accommodated themselves to Xi’s one-man, strong-man rule.

Pittinsky and I concluded that leaders who lust never stop. Xi would never then be satisfied even if he were to rule the word. He would simply move on – look for other worlds left to conquer.

Fauci the Follower

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I’ve gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

For the better part of this year, Dr. Anthony Fauci was the apparently ready and willing follower of President Donald Trump. Though it was clear all along that Fauci was expert on the pandemic and Trump, to understate it, inexpert, the former was nevertheless willing to bow to the latter in what he publicly said, when he publicly said it, and how he publicly said it.

Though Fauci tried as he might to accommodate his boss, in time the relationship between them became untenable. Interestingly, it became untenable not so much, as I would have predicted, from Fauci’s side as from Trump’s. Given that Fauci was willing to play along for many months – play the part of scientist in an administration that was militantly anti-science – what reasons did Trump have for turning against Fauci?

Here three. First, because no matter how circumspect Fauci, no matter how cautious and careful his every syllable, the differences between him and his superior became blindingly clear. Second, because the facts on the ground changed. While Trump repeatedly wished the virus away, not only did it not in time vanish, it became in time more pernicious. Finally, and most importantly, Trump soured on Fauci because in recent months his approval ratings soared sky high. They were much higher in fact than were Trump’s, at least as they pertained to the all-important question of who was better at handling the virus crisis. For the president such a comparison was unacceptable, intolerable. He cannot stomach polls that show Fauci or anyone else for that matter with as much as a 27-point lead.

No wonder then that for the time being at least Trump has frozen Fauci out. On several occasions the president muzzled his underling by, for example scuttling some of his previously scheduled television appearances. And since early June Trump has effectively locked him out of the Oval Office. To his media pal Sean Hannity the president avowed that while Fauci was a “nice man,” he made “a lot of mistakes.”

Which raises the question of what will be Fauci’s response? I have long thought that he should quit the administration that has been so obviously opposed to everything he stands for. But, for reasons of his own, reasons that I do not agree with but do not question, Fauci has chosen to stay. Will he still stay? If yes, will he still do what Trump wants him to do? Or will he find his own voice, say his own piece, chart his own course – whether inside the administration or out?

The Irony of this Presidency

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I’ve gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It’s titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

Not one of our recent presidents – not Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or George H. W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter – has put a premium particularly on seeming manly. Each has seemed secure enough in his manhood to take it for granted. Similarly, though they all pursued policies that could be seen to be hostile, they seemed at least to do so reluctantly. None appeared to relish their hostility, or to equate it with being manly.  

Donald Trump has been the exception to this general rule. To be seen to be manly has been all his life of supreme importance. In his adulthood it has been a running theme, whether it be vis-à-vis women, or vis-à-vis his competition in business, or, for that matter, in politics. Trump’s stance is invariably assertive. His behavior is relentlessly combative. And his language is atypically aggressive. Not for nothing does the word “dominate” dominate his vocabulary.

Trump mistakenly equates manliness with strength. The irony is by his calculation he is the least manly of all recent presidents. He is, that is, the least strong. Nowhere has this been so screamingly obvious as during the pandemic. The pandemic is the most serious public health crisis the United States has faced in over a century. Yet instead of seizing the reins, instead of taking control, the president of the United States, the federal government, abdicated control. He turned control of the corona virus crisis over to state and local authorities. In so doing he was many things. But, above all he was weak. Above all he was the opposite of strong. Above all he was anything other than the man he imagined.   

The End of Leadership – Redux

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I’ve gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It’s titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

This is me just banging my drum. So, if you’ve heard me bang this drum before, skip this post.

Impossible to experience recent weeks without returning to a theme that I, in The End of Leadership, and Mois Naim, in The End of Power, have been playing and, certainly in my case, replaying, for almost a decade. As I put it in the book, “Followers on the rise, leaders in decline.” And, as Naim put it in his, “Power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained.”

This is not, obviously, to say that leadership is dead, or power is over. Rather it is to point out that the balance of power between leaders and followers is changing, and that because followers have become the more forceful, leaders have become the more threatened. It’s why leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have become more authoritarian or even totalitarian over time, not less. They know that to maintain law and order, to maintain personal and political control, they have no choice. Give followers an inch, they’ll now take a mile.       

Some stories seem small. But they are big because they are indicative. For example, the opinion page editor of the New York Times, James Bennet, was forced recently to resign after 800 Times employees signed a letter objecting to a piece he permitted to be published. Or, though more than three quarters of colleges and universities have said that students can return to campus this fall, institutions of higher education are facing a rising revolt by faculty who, because of the pandemic, have said they are unwilling to return to in-person classes.   

Other stories are, on the face of it, big. They suggest nothing less than tectonic shifts.

Case in point: Hong Kong. After more than five years of protests by Hong Kongers against the authorities in China, especially in 2019, when the demonstrators repeatedly ranged in the hundreds of thousands, Beijing, read President Xi Jinping, had had enough. Notwithstanding international condemnation, he signed a new national security law intended solely to crack down on anyone and everyone in Hong Kong who had the temerity in any way to object to his regime.  Within a day after the law took effect, the police deployed pepper spray and water cannons, and they arrested 370 people. The leader understood that to squash the protests once and for all he would have to squash his followers. Followers understood that from here on in they were forced to toe the line – or else.

Case in point: Facebook. In early June CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood firmly behind his decision to take no action against President Trump’s inflammatory posts. While hundreds of workers responded by staging a virtual walkout, they had no impact – not then. At about the same time, several CEOs of several other social media companies, notably Twitter and Snapchat, reached a different decision. They decided they would fact-check the president and curb his power to promote misinformation. By early July Facebook faced an ad boycott to which some of the world’s leading companies – from Clorox to Coca-Cola – had in short order signed on. To contain the damage, Facebook, effectively overnight, adopted a more conciliatory tone. It became clear, even to Zuckerberg, that the world had, with stunning speed, moved on. Wrote Kevin Roose on July 3 the New York Times, “It felt like a dam breaking, or the changing of a guard. Withing a 48-hour period this week, many of the world’s internet giants took steps that would have been unthinkable for them even months earlier…. Facebook, under pressure from a growing advertiser boycott took down a network of violent anti-government insurrectionists who had set up shop on its platform. Taken independently, these changes might have felt incremental and isolated…. But arriving all at once, they felt like something much bigger: a sign that the Wild Wild Web … is coming to an end.”

Case in point: Black Lives Matter.  Since the killing by the police of George Floyd in late May, have been numberless protests by numberless protesters in numberless cities and towns across the United States. It is too early to know what will be the changes long term. But there is ample evidence of some changes short term, especially in policing, from defunding the police in Minneapolis to disbanding the anti-crime unit in New York.  There is also ample evidence the demonstrations – the Black Lives Matter movement – have had wide support among a wide swath of the American people. 87 percent of black Americans, 77 percent of Hispanic Americans, 75 percent of Asian Americans, and 60 percent of white Americans – Pew pollsters found all in support. Now as before, when the powerless take on the powerful in large numbers, the powerless can and often do prevail. Now as before, taking to the streets in large numbers can and often does work.

Case in point: Mask politics. Pandemic notwithstanding, our leader effectively said no. Our leader effectively said, “no, you don’t have to wear a mask if you don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t want to wear a mask and so I won’t wear a mask.” For months his most prominent followers – such as Republican governors and senators – followed where he led. They did as he did – they did not wear a mask. In time, though, it became abundantly evident, irrefutably apparent, that even if you don’t want to wear a mask, wearing a mask is a must. In fact, to not wear a mask is bad, even dangerous behavior. Dangerous to self, dangerous to others. And so, one by one Republicans senators and governors began to peel off. These increasingly more important followers began to peel off from their increasingly less important leader. Even the most subservient of all the leader’s followers, Vice President Mike Pence, stood up to our leader, at least on this issue. After months of not wearing a mask, Pence now does, regularly. Which raises this question: What’s a leader to do when followers don’t follow?    

Context Changes, Cornyn Caves

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I have gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

No single Republican has been more abjectly loyal to President Donald Trump than has Texas Senator John Cornyn. The president would say, “Jump!” Cornyn would ask, “How high?” As Justin Miller noted, Cornyn “mastered the art of political subservience” to the Republican Party generally and to this Republican President specifically.

But things change. Contexts change. The situation in Texas has changed. In May, Governor Greg Abbott, eager to have Texas at the forefront of Trump’s push to restart the economy, reopened the state, allowing millions of Texans to head out to everything from shopping centers to movie theaters. Alas, Abbott’s move backfired. In the last week or two Texas emerged at the forefront of the virus crisis. Since late May, the average number of newly reported cases each day has more than doubled, up to about 3,500 from 1,500. Moreover, just yesterday Texas reached another milestone: it recorded more new cases in a single day than it has since the pandemic started.

Time for an about face. Cornyn, heretofore completely craven, finally took him on, took on Trump. When the administration announced that it was ending its support for testing centers around the country, including seven in Texas, Cornyn was frightened into fighting back. He issued a statement calling for the administration to reverse course, saying that with the “uptick of cases, now is not a time to retreat from our vigilance in testing. I believe that they need to extend that federal support in Texas, at least until we get this most recent uptick in cases addressed.”

Oh really?  You found your voice, Senator Cornyn? Will you, a follower to your core, still have that voice when it comes to testing centers not in Texas but in Tennessee? When it comes to taking on Trump not out of self interest but in the public interest?   

Interested in Leadership? In Followership? Watch What Happens in Tulsa!

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I have gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

Already followers trumped Trump. They got him to change the date of his rally in Tulsa, originally scheduled for June 19th. But since that’s Juneteenth – the holiday commemorating the end of slavery – which the president’s schedulers knew or not, Trump retreated. He announced that he would postpone his rally by one day, “out of respect for this holiday.” So much for Round #1.

Now what? Will Trump go ahead and hold his indoor rally on Saturday – despite screaming and yelling in protest from everyone who is anyone? From public health officials – who regularly reiterate what a miserable idea right now to cram 19,000 people into an indoor space – to local authorities, Tulsa officials, who dread a spike in Covid cases. Or will Trump pivot, maybe hold the event outdoors, in fear of what might happen if he proceeds as planned?

Those who attend the rally will be required to sign a statement saying that if they get ill as a result, they will not hold the president, or anyone associated with him, responsible. And yet. And yet we know that whatever the risks, whatever the costs, Donald Trump will retain his base, followers who follow where he leads.

Exactly why his base remains in his thrall remains to many a mystery. But President Trump is not the first bad leader to appeal to followers, sometimes millions of followers who have what they deem their own good reasons for remaining loyal to a leader whose virtues escape the rest of us entirely.      

Milley’s Apology

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I have gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

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In 2006 I had an article published in the Harvard Business Review titled, “When Should a Leader Apologize – and When Not.”  https://hbr.org/2006/04/when-should-a-leader-apologize-and-when-not

My longstanding interest in the question led me to pay particular attention yesterday when the nation’s highest ranking military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, issued, well, it was not precisely an apology, rather it was an expression of deep regret. He said he was wrong to have walked alongside President Donald Trump during his controversial visit to a damaged church near the White House. “I should not have been there,” admitted Milley. “As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from.”  

It was a supremely important gesture – the willingness of a man so highly placed publicly to acknowledge that what he did was wrong.

I have written before that the American military does the best job, by far the best job, of any American institution or organization educating leaders, training leaders, and developing leaders. The parade in recent weeks of top military brass saying out loud what they really think and feel about the president of the United States, who in some cases remains still their boss, is heartening. It would seem also to confirm what I wrote in my book, Professionalizing Leadership. “The evidence suggests that the military does a demonstrably better job of teaching people how to lead than its countless civilian counterparts.”     

Angela Merkel – A Leader for all Seasons

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, most of my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I have gotten ensnared writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It is titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy.  

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I wrote several times before about the leadership of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  Here an example: https://barbarakellerman.com/the-leadership-of-chancellor-angela-merkel/

I turn to her again then not because I ought to but because I want to. I want to because it happens that as she is winding down her tenure as Chancellor – she already announced that in 2021 she will retire as chancellor – she is at the top of her game. And what game she’s got!

  • Germany has turned out a paragon among large Western democracies on how to prepare for a pandemic. During Merkel’s fifteen-year tenure, Germany’s government has been highly efficient and well-oiled. Its remarkably prompt “track and trace” response to the virus crisis spared Germany the crippling effects of the pandemic felt elsewhere in Europe – in Great Britain, Italy, and Spain, among others. Moreover, a mere six weeks after Germany’s first deaths from Covid-19, the authorities declared the pandemic under control. None of this was sheer happenstance. Germany was long prepared for an event such as this one, primarily by lavishing money on its healthcare system. Additionally, Merkel was a leader who understood science – and who deeply respected the expertise of the experts. “Before I do anything,” she said, “I need to understand what’s going on here.”  This explains why from day one Germany’s leading virologists played an outsized role in shaping the country’s policy response to the corona virus.
  • After years of preaching fiscal austerity, Merkel is deviating from her past pattern. She threw her support behind a post-pandemic stimulus package that includes significant extra spending and tax cuts, as well as generous supports for business. Moreover, among her European counterparts she’s is in the lead, far in the lead. According to the Financial Times, while Germany has “changed its tune in spectacular fashion, in Europe it remains an outlier.” All of Germany’s neighbors have yet to move from funding emergency aid to funding ambitious fiscal programs intended to hasten post-pandemic recoveries.
  • Finally, one of Merkel’s boldest move yet – one to save the hobbled European Union. Long known for her natural proclivity toward cautious and conservative incrementalism, Merkel recently reached a landmark agreement with French president Emmanuel Macron generously to contribute to a European recovery fund. Its purpose is to help the EU’s hardest hit members get past the current financial crisis – which was set off, of course, by the current health crisis. There is no overestimating the importance of this initiative. Whether or not the Eurozone has the capacity to take advantage of the money that’s on the table is too early to tell. What is not too early to tell is that without Germany’s (and France’s) willingness to step into the breach, and without Merkel’s (and Macron’s) readiness to step up to the plate, the EU’s time of troubles would certainly have been destined indefinitely to continue.

The incumbent chancellor has long been and remains still a remarkable exception to the general rule. She is a leader of a liberal democracy who is able at this time, in this moment, to govern wisely and well.  Says something very good about Merkel as a 21st century leader. Says something equally good about Germans as 21st century followers.