Fallout from Bad Followership

Fallout from Bad Followership

In my most recent book, The End of Leadership, I wrote this about Silvio Berlusconi, who, after Mussolini, was Italy’s second-longest-serving prime minister ever. I first pointed out that followers all across Europe had recently taken to attacking, demeaning, or even rejecting their leaders. And then I went on to add that to every rule there are some exceptions. Here Italy – “a country whose economy lagged well behind the economies of Germany and France, and where the longtime leader [Berlusconi] was as corrupt as he was inept, but whose constituencies were curiously passive, inexplicably tolerant to the inevitable end of his long history of wrongdoing.” (Berlusconi was elected and then reelected. He was prime minister from 1994-1995 – and again from 2001 to 2006, and again from 2008 to 2011.)

I was reminded of this recently when I read Frank Bruni’s loving but ultimately lamenting reflection on Italy today, “Italy Breaks Your Heart” (NYT, 10/27/13). It’s impossible to know what Italy now would be like had the clearly corrupt and manifestly inept Berlusconi not been at the helm for so long. But what we do know now is this: Italy is a pale shadow of what it was just a couple of decades ago – and of what it could have been had history been different. Its public debt is the second highest in the euro zone, trailing only Greece’s. Its G.D.P. is worse than Spain or Portugal’s. And so far at least there has been no meaningful recovery from the economic crisis. Even more disheartening than the numbers is Bruni’s downright depressing description of a country that’s lost its way, and of a people as dispirited as they are derailed.

Bruni writes that “Berlusconi made Italian life seem like an adolescent party…, in which what you achieved mattered less than what you could get away with, the spoils going to the slipperiest.” But in blaming Berlusconi Bruni makes a mistake. He makes the mistake that most of us make – the leader attribution error – which is to blame leaders for bad outcomes.*

However the fault, dear reader, is not in our leaders, but in ourselves, that we ascribe to others, specifically to leaders, blame, or for that matter credit, that rightfully is ours. This is not to suggest that leaders are sideshows, unimportant or even irrelevant. Rather it is to make plain that the Italian people tolerated, even supported Berlusconi for way too long, excruciatingly, unfathomably long. Which is why now they are paying the piper.

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*The phrase – “leader attribution error” – is Richard Hackman’s.

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