Erik Erikson was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst who in the 1960s and ‘70s played a prominent role in America’s intellectual discourse. He was best known first for his theory of human development, from childhood through old age, and second for writing two groundbreaking biographies, one of Martin Luther, the other of Mahatma Gandhi.
The two biographies were psychoanalytical in their approach – and psychosocial. The former centered on the development of the two individuals; the latter on their development in relation to the contexts within which they lived. Erikson theorized that between Luther and his moment in time, and between Gandhi and his moment in time, was a singularly fortuitous fit. In both cases the men met their moments in ways that served them as leaders, and their followers, sublimely well.
Erikson was similarly eloquent on how central to leaders were their ties to their followers. And on how central to followers were their ties to their leaders. “Whatever motivation or conflict followers may have in common as they join a leader, and are joined together by him” has to be studied, Erikson argued, in relation both to their personal lives, their lives as individuals, and to their collective lives, their lives as members of communities.
Though for a half century the leadership industry has focused on leaders virtually exclusively, Erikson was not the only expert who insisted it made no sense to focus on leaders without simultaneously focusing on their followers. Another was Bruce Mazlish, the psychoanalytically trained historian who in 1989 wrote that, “The leader does not exist, fully formed, before the encounter with the group he is to lead…. The leader discovers a self … in the course of interacting with the chosen group.” At the same time were others who expanded the canvas by stressing the importance of context – among the most obvious examples, that of post-World War II Britain. Though for all of Winston Churchill’s greatness as a wartime leader, not long after the last battle was fought he was pushed from his perch. Churchill had not changed – but the context had.
Anyone familiar with my work knows that in these matters I stand on the shoulders of a small number of my predecessors. Some years ago I started never to write anymore, speak anymore, or teach anymore about “leadership,” but only about what I came to call the “leadership system.” The leadership system is deceptively simple. It has three parts – leaders, followers, and contexts – each of which is equally important and each of which is both dependent on, and independent of, the other two.
The systemic approach comes to mind now, with the emergence of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo as America’s leader primus inter pares – America’s leader who has emerged since the corona virus crisis as first among equals. To the surprise of those who watched him over the years, Cuomo has come, almost overnight, to occupy a prominent place among Americans desperate for a leader who seems to them to be bold, bright, and brave enough to navigate the roiling waters of this existential virus crisis.
Let me be clear: Cuomo did not emerge from obscurity. He is scion of a prominent political family. He held a cabinet post in the administration of President Bill Clinton. He served as Attorney General of the State of New York. And he has been governor of the State of New York for nearly a decade. Still, his was not exactly a household name, certainly not at the national level. Additionally, his popularity among the Democratic establishment was, shall we say, minimal as opposed to maximal. Finally, within the great city of New York he was known mainly for two things: his wretched neglect of the all-important city subway system and his wretched relationship with the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. In short, while Cuomo was widely regarded as smart, he was neither widely loved nor widely admired. Until now.
Again, Cuomo has not changed. But the situation has – hence have the needs of his followers. Americans, New Yorkers at the epicenter, are caught, trapped, locked in a pandemic. A pandemic that was not only unanticipated but unimagined. A pandemic that has triggered high anxiety and even abject fear. A pandemic that is a breach into which Cuomo has stepped.
This is a man who has met his moment. This is a man who however he was seen before the crisis, during the crisis is being seen completely differently. He holds daily press briefings that are hailed as master classes in public communication. He posts facts and figures that are praised as master classes in truth-telling. He radiates uncertainty and confidence simultaneously; he alternates being angry and frustrated with being calm and composed. He has, as noted in the Financial Times, “transformed himself into an unlikely father of the nation as it faces one of its gravest modern moments.”
In consequence of the excellence of his performance, Cuomo’s followers have morphed from clear-eyed constituents into starry-eyed fans. They share text messages swooning over his latest appearances. They compare him to the best of group therapists, a person in a position of authority who can sooth their savage breasts. And they fantasize about his future – preferably in the White House, having as seamlessly as bloodlessly deposed the Democratic heir apparent, Joe Biden. No surprise that this week a Siena College poll of New Yorkers found a thumping 87% of respondents approved of the governor’s performance during this current crisis.
Cuomo continues to deny that he has any interest whatsoever in running for the presidency. But his legions of followers can dream, can’t they? Meantime they testify vividly to the veracity of what social scientists call “the fundamental attribution error.” What exactly is this error? “People’s inflated belief in the importance of personality traits and dispositions, together with their failure to recognize the importance of situational factors in affecting behavior.”
Sources of Quotes:
Erik Erikson, Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence.
Bruce Mazlish, The Leader and the Led.
Lee Ross and Richard Nisbett, The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology.