The End of Leadership – Redux

My book, The End of Leadership, came out in 2012. While the title was somewhat hyperbolic, I did mean it to suggest that leadership as we had known it had changed, likely forever.

My book Hard Times: Leadership in America, which came out in 2014, argued that the end of leadership was as much about context as it was about leaders and followers. Specifically, it was about how 24 different components of context made exercising leadership in 21st century America difficult.

Nothing has changed since 2012 – in fact, as predicted, if you want to lead your task is even harder. Two reasons stand out. The first is followers – particularly our own profound, pervasive dislike and distrust of the system within which we are situated. The recent numbers are numbing. Between 2000 and 2015, the favorable rating of Congress plummeted 18 points; the presidency 16 points; even the Supreme Court 17 points. Nor does the private sector do better. Businesses and banks have had similar drops in public approval. Of course the reasons for this are as complex as numerous. Suffice it here to say that no quick fix is in evidence, which means that anyone who wants to lead in America – or for that matter in any democratic system – must for the foreseeable future do so in an atmosphere that is hostile.

The second reason leadership now is more difficult to exercise is because our attitude toward leadership per se has hardened. Since the establishment of the Republic, America has always had an anti-authority culture. Our revolutionary origin and ideology made certain of that. But, it is also true that in recent years leading has become even trickier. We know by now that command and control and pyramidal hierarchies are out. And we know by now that shared or distributed power and flattened hierarchies are in. What we know less well is the degree to which this trend has solidified – and to which it is being reified by younger generations. Demographics matter. Younger followers demand more than did their predecessors: they expect their leaders to be more transparent, and more forthcoming, and more equitable toward those ostensibly beneath them.

None of this should surprise us. For several hundred years of western history power has devolved, from those up high to those down below. Moreover technology – especially social media – has accelerated this trend. What it does suggest, though, is that anyone who would teach leadership, and anyone who would learn it, should be acutely aware of the hardships associated with leading in a climate as frail and fraught as this one.

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