Leaders, Leaders, Everywhere. Where?

What is a leader? Who is a leader? How is a “leader” defined?

As every student of leadership knows, to these questions are hundreds of different answers. For the purposes of this piece I’ll keep it simple. I’ll assume – as most of us do- that leaders are people in positions of authority. For example, a CEO of a large company is a leader. But what if that CEO does not lead? More precisely, what if that CEO does not lead other than inside his or her own company? Does it suffice, in other words, for leaders of organizations in business, or in education, or in religion, or in any place else for that matter to say little or nothing about the larger context within which their organizations are located? Even if that larger context is being derailed, not to speak of despoiled?

In my book Bad Leadership, I developed a typology of bad leadership. One of the seven types of bad leadership was Insular Leadership. Insular Leadership is when “the leader and at least some followers minimize or disregard the health and welfare of ‘the other’ – that is, those outside the group or organization for which they are directly responsible.” My hypothesis was it will not suffice for leaders to lead only those who are their subordinates. Good leaders, have a larger, social responsibility. Which is why, to take an obvious example, leaders of fossil fuel companies should long ago have acknowledged, and acted on, their further obligations. Obligations that extend beyond the companies for which they are directly responsible. That extend to the preservation of the planet for the benefit of generations to come.

The syndrome of insular leadership came to mind again recently, when in the wake of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, the captains of American industry finally found their tongues. They finally found the fortitude to speak up and out against President Donald Trump who during the entirety of his time in the White House had been as obviously corrupt as incompetent.

Notwithstanding the unprecedented deficits of the Trump administration, leaders in American business were mute both on his ethics and effectiveness. They had struck a Faustian bargain, agreeing to scratch his back if only he would scratch theirs. Scratch theirs by, for instance, bestowing on them corporate tax cuts from which they stood handsomely to benefit. Presumably, some among America’s corporate titans were true believers. Steven Schwartzman, for example, CEO of Blackstone, was such an ardent Trump supporter it’s possible to imagine he meant what he said.  But, based on their public records as well as subsequent statements, most did not. Most corporate leaders did what Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, said they did. They subjugated their moral principles to what their perceived their business interests. But, as Walker pointed out, the compromises they made were “ultimately bad for business and bad for society.”   

No sense blaming only business leaders for being bystanders. As suggested, leaders in other places, such as in higher education, are equally to blame for their failure to be heard during a four-year period that, one could reasonably argue, led inexorably to an attempted coup. History has taught us that silence does not suffice. History has taught us that tyrants must be stopped before they start. History has taught us that leaders must lead lest they follow.

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