The End of Leadership – Then and Now

My book, The End of Leadership, was published in 2012. In it I made several arguments but, as its title implies, my primary point was that the world was changing and that, increasingly, the powerless were taking on the powerful, demanding, finally, greater equity.

I further pointed out that this was no more than – and, also, no less than – a continuation of what had been an historical trajectory. One in which, over the course of human history, power and influence had generally devolved from the top down.

What I got right was this most fundamental point. But I also got something wrong, something important wrong. I was more optimistic than was warranted that, in consequence of followers getting stronger and leaders weaker, the number of democracies would rise while the number of autocracies would fall. I was, for example, more optimistic about what then was a contemporaneous phenomenon, the Arab Spring, than was, ultimately, merited.

For a time, my prognosis seemed to hold. But within a few years it become clear that the tide had turned. Moreover, by now, the situation is in one critical way reversed; there are fewer democracies in the world today than there were a decade ago. In 2019, Freedom House, which measures such things, found that there is a consistent and continuing decline in global freedom. “Democracy and pluralism are under assault,” it concluded, while “dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent.”

It was this that I did not foresee. That leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been either Prime Minister or President of Turkey since 2003, would evolve from being reasonably democratic to unreasonably autocratic. Moreover, Erdogan is only a single example of a quite frequent phenomenon. Leaders around the world, from China’s Xi Jinping to Hungary’s Viktor Orban to Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, have all tightened their grip on power.

But one could argue, and I do, that they have done so precisely because of the trajectory to which I just alluded. Dictators like these fully recognize that if they do not squeeze their followers, hold them tight in their iron grip, these self- same followers will, one day, overtake and finally overwhelm them.  For years Vladimir Putin tolerated the man who was his most prominent opponent, Alexei Navalny. But in the last year Putin tried, unsuccessfully, fatally to poison him. And now he has thrown Navalny in prison and, to all appearances, thrown away the key. (As I write, Navalny is said by his prison doctor to be at death’s door.)

In stark contrast to what has transpired in recent years in systems that are authoritarian or even totalitarian, is what has transpired in those that are not. In liberal democracies the trend I predicted has held. That is, leaders, especially people in positions of authority, continue to get weaker, and followers stronger. Traditional systems of maintaining control are fraying, while everywhere there are upstarts, people out to challenge the status quo. To this movement, or these movements, which are entirely in keeping with the trajectory of history, there is no end in sight.

  • Robin Hood Markets is taking on traditional financial services companies by offering commission-free trading of stocks and exchange-traded funds via a mobile app. You prefer to trade in cryptocurrencies – about which no one had even heard just a few years ago? If yes, rather than put up with stodgy American regulators, you can turn to FTX, founded by a 29-year-old billionaire by the name of Sam Bankman-Fried. He operates out of Hong Kong. Living in Hong Kong is stifling and even dangerous – if you’re a Hong Konger who is politically active. But it is decidedly not stifling or even dangerous if you’re a hugely rich American who wants only to be left alone to do his own thing. Further evidence that Big Finance, Wall Street, is ripe for an upstart takeover or, at least, a tech makeover, is the degree to which start-ups are circumventing traditional Wall Street channels to raise the money they need to launch, and then sustain them. According to the New York Times, “Venture capital investors poured $44.4 billion into financial technology start-ups last year, up from $1.1 billion in 2009. Many investors are now making bold predictions that these start ups will upend big banks, established credit card providers, and in some cases, the entire financial system.” I am not predicting that the heyday of big banks is over. I am however maintaining they best watch their backs – lest they play toad to some start-up hare.  
  • Amazon won the battle of Alabama. But it is not at all clear that Amazon will win the war. Union organizers in Bessemer, Alabama were thumped in a recent election in which local Amazon workers voted decisively not to unionize, at least not now. Though a deep disappointment to those who foretold a resurgence of the union movement, one could argue it was a near miracle that the election took place at all. Invariably, Amazon throws its humungous weight behind every effort to stop its workers from organizing. But it has not been able to prevent growing numbers of them from complaining loudly and bitterly about their working conditions. Amazon is an employment behemoth. Some 1.3 million people work at the company, making it the nation’s second largest private employer, after Walmart. Moreover in at least two important ways Amazon treats its workers well. The company provides good health benefits and, in 2018, it instituted a nationwide minimum hourly wage of $15 – not bad in comparison with most other companies that are similar, but much more miserly. But as others have pointed out, the fact that Amazon’s employees suffer injuries at far higher rates than the national average is impossible any longer to hide, and hence to ignore. Which is precisely why Amazon’s iconic leader, Jeff Bezos, was obliged finally to admit, just two days ago, that Amazon “needs to do a better job” for its employees.
  • For years, for decades, forever, major American sports leagues and even the most prominent among American athletes have taken pains to stay above, or at least out of, the fray. They have done what they could to stay away from any of the contentious concerns of the day, especially if they centered on third rail issues such as race and gender. But, in recent years and especially in recent months it has become difficult if not impossible for them to be like Switzerland, relentlessly neutral. Individually and collectively leading figures from the world of sports have felt obliged – either morally or politically – to take a stand. To take sides publicly, sometimes forcefully, on issues such as police brutality, gun violence, and L.G.B.T.Q. rights, with some even putting their money where their mouths are. Just a few years ago Colin Kaepernick was marginalized for protesting racism by kneeling during the national anthem. Those days are over. Major players speak out when it damn well suits them. Major leagues bankroll new social justice efforts. Major teams seize the moment, as in Georgia’s recent senate election, when a women’s basketball team actively campaigned against a sitting Republican Senator, who happened also to be owner of their team. And even Major League Baseball, the oldest of the major sports leagues in the United States, and arguably the most hidebound, took the somewhat surprising step of moving the annual All-Star Game out of Atlanta to protest Georgia’s new voting law, the sole purpose of which, its critics maintain, is to suppress the Black vote.                     
  • Corporate America the same. It prefers, strongly prefers, to stay away from any issue that is, or could become remotely controversial. After all, the point of business is business, turning a profit, so why alienate anyone who currently is a customer or could become a customer? But, recently, many of the nation’s top CEOs felt they had no choice. Pushed to take a political position by two of the nation’s top black executives, Merck’s Kenneth Frazier and American Express’s former CEO, Kenneth Chenault, some 72 other black executives agreed to sign a letter that was published as a full-page ad in the New York Times. It urged corporations to use whatever their resources to oppose any state laws, proposed or enacted, designed to restrict voting rights for Black people. Not long after, just a week ago, in fact, 100 corporate executives held a conference call to discuss stopping donations and investments to fight controversial voting bills. Ironically, or maybe not, this was hard on the heels of Senate Minority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, darkly warning business leaders that they had no business sticking their nose into politics. “Firms “should stay out of politics” he admonished, echoing other Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, who had already urged a boycott of companies such as Coca-Cola and Delta whose CEOs had the temerity publicly to oppose the aforementioned Georgia law. Yale University Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, who was one of the organizers of the earlier mentioned call, reported later that those who participated were “obviously rejecting” McConnell’s warning that they should stay out of politics. Instead, Sonnenfeld held that their presence on the call was an indication of itself that they were concerned “about voting restrictions not being in the public interest.”           ,
  • No question that in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and other subsequence incidents of obvious police brutality, the levels of social and political activism increased not only at home but abroad. This is not to say that so far at least the massive, and extended protests have been obviously productive. To the contrary: while there have been some changes, most have been at the margins, with major shifts both in the law and the culture yet to come. Still, there is no dismissing as inconsequential the fact that even by last summer some 15 to 26 million people had participated in related demonstrations, making the protests in the wake of Floyd’s death the largest in United States history. As I write, the American people are on tenterhooks, waiting nervously for the outcome of the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the police office charged with being directly responsible for Floyd’s death. The tenterhooks are precisely because it is widely believed that if Chauvin is acquitted, or even if he is found guilty on a lesser charge, there will be widespread unrest, if not even blood in the streets. Americans are living in a society that is widely “woke,” with passions running high on both sides – some seeing the push for equity, diversity, and inclusion as being still too little too late, other seeing it as political correctness run amuck.
  • Though the story is much, much smaller than the protests spearheaded by, and emblematic of, Black Lives Matter, one could argue that it is just as indicative of a time in which (in liberal democracies) the powerless are increasingly emboldened to take on the powerful. The example in this case is what has happened in recent weeks at Goldman Sachs. Goldman is, of course, the legendary multinational investment bank and financial services firm. It is a company in which young people are desperate to get a toehold, because getting in the door can guarantee a lifetime of enormous success, especially but not exclusively financial success. So young professionals are usually thrilled to get even entry level positions at Goldman, which is why, historically, they have been willing to work inordinately hard for inordinately long hours to get ahead. Now though, to the astonishment of their superiors, some of them are balking. For the first time ever, senior executives are being pressured by their underlings to amend Goldman’s brutal workplace demands, including the 95-hour workweeks. Slide decks detailing what is now being called workplace abuse have been widely circulated, forcing the company in some way to respond. A human resource officer assured employees that the bank had been thinking for some time about how to provide its employees with a better work-life balance. And Goldman’s CEO David Solomon tried, at least, to split the difference. On the one hand he asked staff to “continue to go the extra mile for our client, even when we feel we’re reaching our limit.” But on the other hand, he did go so far as to say that he wanted a workplace “where people can share their concerns freely.”
  • Finally, there is this: a story out of Paris which is nothing if not a sign of the times. The Palais de la Porte Doree was opened in 1931. According to the New York Times, it was designed to “extol” France’s “colonizing mission” – containing in its confines everything from bas-reliefs of laborers in faraway lands to frescoes of imperial magnificence. Now though the institution is led by a man whose family members were among the colonized peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. His name is Pap Ndiaye: he is an historian and academic of Senegalese and French descent who is described as a “quiet revolutionary.” His task as he sees it is entirely in keeping with the temper of the times – and indeed with this point of this essay. For he wants to move his institution from the periphery of French culture to the center. He wants to bring issues ranging from imperialism to colonialism, from racism to immigration, out of the shadows and into the light. He wants the Palais de la Porte Doree to change from a place that was seen as being “somewhat cursed, and in search of an identity,” to proclaim itself, declare itself, loudly and clearly so that all of France, all the world, can hear.   

 A report recently released by the U. S. National Intelligence Council described several global trends that directly relate to “the end of leadership.” They include first, large segments of global populations becoming wary of institutions and governments; and second, large segments of global populations becoming more empowered and more demanding.

 For anyone with any interest in leadership and followership, the signs then are clear. In systems that are authoritarian and certainly totalitarian focusing more on the leader than on the follower might, arguably, make sense. But in systems that can broadly be described as liberal democracies, fixating on leaders at the expense of followers makes no sense whatsoever. For in these cases at least the follower is where the action is.                            

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