Leadership and Followership in Foreign Affairs

For several years I have argued that, in general, leaders are getting weaker and followers stronger. I continue to make the case for two main reasons. First, I am persuaded that to understand the way the world works in the second decade of the 21st century, it is as important to account for followers as leaders. Leaders have less power, authority, and influence than they did before, and while followers as I define them have no authority, they do have power and influence – which has tended in recent years to accrue. This applies across the board, to the private and nonprofit sectors as well as to the public one, and to China and Brazil as to the United States.

The second reason I continue to make my case is because in my view the leadership industry is misguided – misguided to the degree it is leader-centric, as opposed to holistic. Put directly, the days in which focusing solely or even primarily on the leader are dead and gone. Instead, at this moment in history change needs to be seen as being inclusive, not exclusive. Change is in consequence of the leader, and the followers, and the context within which leaders and followers operate.

By and large I have made my case at the national level – I talk about, write about, what is transpiring within a particular nation state. But it is impossible to watch the events of the last week – I refer particularly to the events in Egypt – without being struck, yet again, by how dated is the old leadership model not only at the national level, but at the international level as well. Here is the paradox. Egypt’s leaders, the Egyptian military, have been powerless to control events within their own country, except, literally, at gunpoint. At the same time American leaders – the president, the secretaries of state and defense, and several senators – have been powerless to control Egypt’s leaders, the self same Egyptian military. In other words no one is able to lead, in any conventional sense of this word, anyone else.

This is the stuff of a book not a blog. But let me make three quick, additional points.

• The situation in Egypt is not singular. It is typical. American power has waned dramatically even in recent years, which means that the White House, the State Department, and even the Pentagon are generally unable to bend either individuals or institutions to their will. Russia’s president Putin has been unwilling to work with Washington on Syria, Iran, human rights, and Edward Snowden. China has refused to cooperate with Washington on a host of policy issues including trade, cyber-security, and intellectual property. Even Israel, arguably America’s staunchest (and most dependent) ally, chooses to go its own way, rejecting American blandishments to, for example, stop or at least slow the settlements.
• The American president is not only unable (easily) to lead leaders of other countries, he is unable completely to control what happens in the streets, people in other countries determined to take matters into their own hands. He is similarly unable to control small groups or cells, driven by their passions to go off on their own, outside the realm of formal authority, to conduct their own foreign policy – such as Al Quaeda. Finally he is unable to control individuals who are loners, individuals such as Edward Snowden, who single-handedly forced President Obama to change the conversation about privacy and national security.
• The American foreign policy establishment has been slow to understand how radical are the changes to which I here refer. It does understand that in 2013 the United States is “leader of the free world” in only the most limited sense. It does understand that in 2013 its still considerable military arsenal is usually useless. And it does understand that in 2013 the world is no longer uni-polar or even bi-polar – it is multi-polar. But what it seems to understand less well, much less well, is how important it is we deviate from leadership in foreign affairs as previously it was exercised. Leadership at the international level has little to do now either with power or authority. To the degree it can be exercised at all it is about influence – a different sort of skill set altogether.

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