Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis (II)

This is the second in s series of four blogs – all to be posted before the end of this week – each of which falls under the heading of “Leaders and Followers – A Class Analysis.”

II. Capitalism – The American Experience

In my previous blog I wrote that at least since the Communist Manifesto, the battle lines had been drawn. Those that had money – capitalists, bourgeoisie, employers – had power. Those without money – workers, proletariats, the unemployed – had no power. They were powerless. Then I added, “In other words, those with money and power were leaders. Those without money and power were followers.”

Given the words “leaders” and “followers” have countless different definitions, and given they are nearly never associated with the words “communism” and “capitalism,” it’s important to define how “leader” and “follower” are here being used. In my book, Followership, I define followers by rank: Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line.” The present discussion is in keeping with this definition.

More precisely, I am equating leaders with 1) capitalists; 2) bourgeoisie; and 3) employers. And I am equating followers with 1) workers; 2) proletariats; and 3) the unemployed. The equations are reasonable for as the definition of follower makes clear, power, authority, influence and, by implication, money, are usually associated with leaders; while the lack of power, authority, influence and, by implication, money, are usually associated with followers. Put directly, in general, leaders have more of whatever is valued than do followers.

If, then, as Marx and Engels argued, history is a series of struggles – class struggles between competing groups such as freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, bourgeoisie and proletariat – then categorizing leaders and followers similarly is not far-fetched. In fact, it makes sense. For history can easily and reasonably be viewed as a class struggle in which leaders (superiors) and followers (subordinates) often have been, and will continue often to be, at odds.

Of course, I recognize that some leaders have no obvious resources. For example, leaders who emerge from the bottom up typically do so without – at least initially without – power, authority, influence or money. Still, in general, and certainly in common parlance, leaders have more of everything than do their followers, which is the assumption I make here. Similarly, I recognize that much of the leadership literature has leaders and followers happily in tandem, good leaders keeping at the forefront not their own needs, wants and wishes, but those of their followers. However, in the real world – the world in which we really do live as opposed to the one in which we might like to live – leaders and followers are not always so aligned. In fact, often their needs, wants, and wishes are unaligned or maybe misaligned.  

Given the inevitable tensions in capitalist systems – tensions to which Marx and Engels referred – it comes as no surprise that as capitalism has evolved, notably in Europe but also in the United States, the system has adapted. That is, capitalists, leaders, have had no choice but to modify the system to take account of the well-being of workers, followers. Social Security, regular payments from the American government to the American people, is a cardinal example of how capitalism was modified over the years, in this case in 1935, to protect the old and otherwise needy against dire hardship, In other words, on the heels of the Great Depression, political leaders, under the direction of President Franklin Roosevelt, bestowed on their followers monthly government grants.

However, whatever the adaptations that capitalism has made over the years to accommodate those who are not capitalists, there are moments in time when they increasingly seem to fall short. When the system seems so inequitable – so strongly favoring the haves (leaders) over the have-nots (followers) – that it becomes to some intolerable. It could be that such a time is now.

The list of concerns and complaints is familiar. They include, among others, rising inequality; slow growth; wage stagnation; political polarization; declining trust in nearly every American institution; rising anxieties about apparently intractable problems from homelessness to climate change; and government dysfunction. The point is that while the problems to which I refer are alien to the leadership industry, they are not so to leadership. One could even argue that though the tensions associated with capitalism first surfaced in 19th century Europe, their manifestations are integral to leadership, especially to political and corporate leadership, in 21st century America.    

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