Hiring a Leader

The best way to avoid having a bad leader is not to hire a bad leader – not to bring on a bad leader in the first place. Of course, in many if not most situations who leads is out of our control. In the workplace, for example, most of us have no say in who leads or even manages. However, in liberal democracies we do have a voice. Might not be much of a voice but a voice – a vote – it still is. Which raises the question of what we do with that vote.

It is widely agreed even now that former president Donald J. Trump will be ranked by experts as the worst president, by far, in American history. Which raises another question: how did he become president in the first place? Obviously, he became the nation’s chief executive because though he never won most of the popular vote, in the 2016 election he won enough electoral votes to put him over the top. Americans always complain about the deficits of the electoral college, but they seem, so far anyway, incapable of doing anything about it. Further, in the 2020 election, notwithstanding Trump’s dismal track record as president, he still, famously, infamously, got some 74 million Americans to vote for him for a second term.

When we set out to hire a doctor or a lawyer, or for that matter a plumber or an electrician, we generally do so with caution and care. We might ask around, or maybe go online, to get someone who comes well recommended. Whose track record is of someone reasonably competent and honest. We would, in other words, want a doctor or plumber who is not a total novice. Similarly, a lawyer or electrician who is not a shyster or grifter.  

Somehow, though, when it comes to hiring a leader – in this case voting for president – our usual standards sometimes bite the dust. Last presidential election those 74 million Americans voted for a candidate who demonstrably was neither competent nor honest. In other words, their standards for hiring a leader were far below those they would ever use for hiring a doctor or a lawyer, a plumber or an electrician.

The implications of this are serious. In fact, as the deaths of over 400,000 Americans from Covid-19 attest, they are, or at least they can be deadly serious. What is to be done? How to educate Americans to the fact that their criteria for hiring a political leader should be the same as their criteria for hiring anyone else – competence and character? Two steps come immediately to mind. The first is to reintroduce into American schools, beginning at an early age, a considered and consistent civics curriculum. The second is to mobilize the leadership industry to set standards for leaders. Standards that attest to the rigorousness of leaders’ education and training, and their experience

The practice of leadership should, in short, mimic the practice of the professions – and the vocations. Would you hire a New York City real estate developer with no relevant experience to treat you for cancer? Would you hire a New York City real estate developer with no relevant experience to fix your toilet? If not, why hire a New York City real estate developer with no relevant experience to run the country?    

Whatever might be his deficits, about Joe Biden there is this to be said. He’s a pro. He’s been in the business of politics for many years. He’s had many previous leadership posts. And as near everyone who knows him concurs, he is a man who is decent.              

Leader Who Lusts as Phenom – Tom Brady*

Given the turmoil and tumult of the last four years few things have stayed the same. An exception is Tom Brady. Now as before he is the most formidable force in American football. And, now as before he is a phenomenon – as singular psychologically as he is physically.  

Brady is a gift to the nation. Ambitious as ever, accomplished as ever, iconic as ever he is good for our national psyche. He reminds us of the virtues of determination and discipline. He entertains, energizes, and distracts. He models good leadership in a morass of bad leadership. And he soothes our savage breasts when they sorely need soothing.

In Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, Todd Pittinsky and I wrote that Brady’s stellar performance and extraordinary longevity were attributable in part to luck. Not every star athlete has his natural physical attributes and abilities, nor, obviously, are they all blessed with his enduring good health.

Still, it is Brady’s mind more than his body, specifically his astonishing work ethic, that has distinguished him from his counterparts. His work ethic has been the external manifestation of his internal drive – of his insatiable appetite, of his tireless lust to succeed. “It explains why he has been willing for so many years, eager for so many years, to push himself far beyond what the rest of us mere mortals can even begin to contemplate.”*

Last year when Brady quit the New England Patriots most football fans thought it likely he had seen his better days. It seemed a stretch for him to assume that he could replicate in Tampa Bay the success he had in New England. Not only was he old, old, old – 42 at the time, ancient for a quarterback – his cord to Pats’ coach Bill Belichick was considered too close to cut.

But while New England has clearly suffered in apparent consequence of Brady’s departure, he himself has thrived. Brady has brought to his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, fresh energy and new hope. Tampa Bay has not won a Super Bowl since 2003. This year though they’re in the NFC Championship – so it’s possible they pull it off, again!  

Brady is as bright a star, as formidable a role model in Tampa Bay as he was in New England. Wrote a sportswriter recently in the Washington Post, “There’s something unique about the way NFL players talk about Brady. [He is] myth as much as man to players who dreamed about making the league while watching his games on TV.” Wrote another writer-admirer, this one in January in the Wall Street Journal, “He is leading the hottest defense in the NFL … and after years of diminishing play Brady has experienced a stunning rejuvenation.” Said Buccaneer’s head coach, Bruce Arians, of Brady just a few days ago, he’s the “consummate leader.”

Leaders Who Lust went to print before Brady moved to Tampa Bay. But his template had long ago been set. To lust for success – as Brady does – has little or even nothing to do with the trappings of success. With fame, or money, or power. Rather it is about success per se – success as its own reward. Which is why despite the risks of playing past his prime, Brady persists. In 2018 he was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, who asked if he thought he had an “insatiable drive.” To which Brady replied, “Yeah, I do. To be the best I can be. Not to be the best what anyone else thinks. Just to be the best I can be. Why am I still playing now? Because I feel like I can still do it…. It’s just, I love it.”   


*My thanks to Jack Greenwald for his considerable contribution to this post.

**Page 137, Cambridge University Press, 2020.

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