The End of Leadership – Redux

Author’s note: For the indefinite future, all my digital articles will be short and shorter. Why? Because I’ve gotten myself ensnared in writing another book – a book that will appear after the next one. My next book – to be published in September by Cambridge University Press – is co-authored with Todd Pittinsky. It’s titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy. 

This is me just banging my drum. So, if you’ve heard me bang this drum before, skip this post.

Impossible to experience recent weeks without returning to a theme that I, in The End of Leadership, and Mois Naim, in The End of Power, have been playing and, certainly in my case, replaying, for almost a decade. As I put it in the book, “Followers on the rise, leaders in decline.” And, as Naim put it in his, “Power is becoming more feeble, transient, and constrained.”

This is not, obviously, to say that leadership is dead, or power is over. Rather it is to point out that the balance of power between leaders and followers is changing, and that because followers have become the more forceful, leaders have become the more threatened. It’s why leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have become more authoritarian or even totalitarian over time, not less. They know that to maintain law and order, to maintain personal and political control, they have no choice. Give followers an inch, they’ll now take a mile.       

Some stories seem small. But they are big because they are indicative. For example, the opinion page editor of the New York Times, James Bennet, was forced recently to resign after 800 Times employees signed a letter objecting to a piece he permitted to be published. Or, though more than three quarters of colleges and universities have said that students can return to campus this fall, institutions of higher education are facing a rising revolt by faculty who, because of the pandemic, have said they are unwilling to return to in-person classes.   

Other stories are, on the face of it, big. They suggest nothing less than tectonic shifts.

Case in point: Hong Kong. After more than five years of protests by Hong Kongers against the authorities in China, especially in 2019, when the demonstrators repeatedly ranged in the hundreds of thousands, Beijing, read President Xi Jinping, had had enough. Notwithstanding international condemnation, he signed a new national security law intended solely to crack down on anyone and everyone in Hong Kong who had the temerity in any way to object to his regime.  Within a day after the law took effect, the police deployed pepper spray and water cannons, and they arrested 370 people. The leader understood that to squash the protests once and for all he would have to squash his followers. Followers understood that from here on in they were forced to toe the line – or else.

Case in point: Facebook. In early June CEO Mark Zuckerberg stood firmly behind his decision to take no action against President Trump’s inflammatory posts. While hundreds of workers responded by staging a virtual walkout, they had no impact – not then. At about the same time, several CEOs of several other social media companies, notably Twitter and Snapchat, reached a different decision. They decided they would fact-check the president and curb his power to promote misinformation. By early July Facebook faced an ad boycott to which some of the world’s leading companies – from Clorox to Coca-Cola – had in short order signed on. To contain the damage, Facebook, effectively overnight, adopted a more conciliatory tone. It became clear, even to Zuckerberg, that the world had, with stunning speed, moved on. Wrote Kevin Roose on July 3 the New York Times, “It felt like a dam breaking, or the changing of a guard. Withing a 48-hour period this week, many of the world’s internet giants took steps that would have been unthinkable for them even months earlier…. Facebook, under pressure from a growing advertiser boycott took down a network of violent anti-government insurrectionists who had set up shop on its platform. Taken independently, these changes might have felt incremental and isolated…. But arriving all at once, they felt like something much bigger: a sign that the Wild Wild Web … is coming to an end.”

Case in point: Black Lives Matter.  Since the killing by the police of George Floyd in late May, have been numberless protests by numberless protesters in numberless cities and towns across the United States. It is too early to know what will be the changes long term. But there is ample evidence of some changes short term, especially in policing, from defunding the police in Minneapolis to disbanding the anti-crime unit in New York.  There is also ample evidence the demonstrations – the Black Lives Matter movement – have had wide support among a wide swath of the American people. 87 percent of black Americans, 77 percent of Hispanic Americans, 75 percent of Asian Americans, and 60 percent of white Americans – Pew pollsters found all in support. Now as before, when the powerless take on the powerful in large numbers, the powerless can and often do prevail. Now as before, taking to the streets in large numbers can and often does work.

Case in point: Mask politics. Pandemic notwithstanding, our leader effectively said no. Our leader effectively said, “no, you don’t have to wear a mask if you don’t want to wear a mask. I don’t want to wear a mask and so I won’t wear a mask.” For months his most prominent followers – such as Republican governors and senators – followed where he led. They did as he did – they did not wear a mask. In time, though, it became abundantly evident, irrefutably apparent, that even if you don’t want to wear a mask, wearing a mask is a must. In fact, to not wear a mask is bad, even dangerous behavior. Dangerous to self, dangerous to others. And so, one by one Republicans senators and governors began to peel off. These increasingly more important followers began to peel off from their increasingly less important leader. Even the most subservient of all the leader’s followers, Vice President Mike Pence, stood up to our leader, at least on this issue. After months of not wearing a mask, Pence now does, regularly. Which raises this question: What’s a leader to do when followers don’t follow?    

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