Heavy lifting: Leading in modern times
by Barbara Kellerman
Leadership |
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For a variety of reasons, exercising leadership has become harder in recent years and resisting leadership has become easier. Followers are ascendant, leaders are in decline.  This author calls the change a “seismic shift” and most observers can see it. Most, that is, except perhaps the one constituency that either does not or cannot see the change – the leadership industry. Readers will learn how the shift occurred and how it has caused what the author refers to as a “crisis in leadership.

To every rule there are exceptions. So, for example, though leaders across the board are in decline and disrepute, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is bucking the trend. Nearly alone among incumbent elected American officials, he has been able, against all o”dds, to create significant change, while at the same time retaining and even increasing his personal and political popularity.  (In April, 2012, after some three years in office, his approval rating was 59 percent.) Similarly, there is someone like Apple’s Steve Jobs, who, on his premature death, was lionized and eulogized as a once in a lifetime chief executive officer, second to none in his capacity to lead and manage.

But the likes of Christie and Jobs are exceptions to both the conventional wisdom and current condition – for by most every measure the U. S. is in a leadership crisis. Some 77  percent of Americans polled consider the lack of good leadership to have reached crisis proportions.[i] Moreover the deterioration in reputation has been ubiquitous. Confidence in America’s leaders decreased in recent years in sectors as various as government, business, religion, and education. An example of the roiling and railing embroiling those at the top is the California State University system, which in little more than a year either replaced or was intending to replace the presidents of 12 of its 23 campuses.

This general rule does not, of course, apply only to the United States. Leaders around the world have been diminished, including, most obviously, in Europe and Asia and, of course, in the Middle East.       

The changes to which I allude are not, per se, to be feared. In fact, in some number of cases bad leaders were, finally, ejected, and in some number of cases bad systems were, finally, rejected. (In 1973, only 29 percent of countries were considered “free.” By 2012 this figure had climbed to 45 percent.) Still, for a variety of reasons, exercising leadership has become harder in recent years, and resisting leadership has become easier.

The rise of followers

In my most recent book, The End of Leadership, I explore this phenomenon in some detail. Here it will suffice to say that the reasons for this shift are in part historical, and in part contemporaneous. First, patterns of dominance and deference have changed over the course of human history, with leaders generally losing power and influence, and followers generally gaining. By now, the ideology (if not, always, the reality) of democracy permeates the workplace (think flattened hierarchy), as it does the commons. And the various rights revolutions, most in the last half century – civil rights, women’s rights, gay, lesbian and transgender rights, even animal rights – have given voice to most anyone and everyone with a semblance of a legitimate complaint. Nor are these trends confined only to the West. The ideals that underpin ideas such as freedom and equality have spread, globalism accounting not only for trading goods and services, but also for trading conceptions of what constitutes the good life.

Second, recent changes in culture and technology have further fueled the waning influence of leaders and promotion of followers – that is, the promotion of those who would seem on the surface to be powerless, at the expense of those who would seem on the surface to be powerful. The new technologies have of themselves shattered old paradigms. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it, “The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cell phones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations – top down – to overwhelmingly two-way conversions – bottom-up and top-down.” [ii] Social media particularly have bestowed on plain people powers that they never had before. They include the capacity to gain information, indulge in self-expression, engage in communication, and initiate action.

The leadership industry

The End of Leadership is, then, about leadership and change. But there is a second theme in addition – a critical discussion of what I call “the leadership industry.” The leadership industry is my catchall term for the “now countless leadership centers, institutes, programs, courses, seminars, workshops, experiences, trainers, books, blogs, articles, websites, webinars, videos, conferences consultants, and coaches claiming to teach people – usually for money – how to lead.”[iii] In my book I discuss a particular paradox: a thirty-plus-year period during which leaders have been in decline and followers on the rise; and a simultaneous thirty-plus-year period during which the leadership industry has gone from fledgling to burgeoning. What, in other words, does it say about our capacity to develop leaders, to teach leadership, if during the self same period we’re teaching leadership en masse, we find ourselves facing a leadership crisis? Put directly, what are the measures by which the leadership industry can objectively claim success, given success, objectively, has turned out so elusive?

One way of assessing the merit of my argument is to look at what’s happened since the book went to press, in January, 2012.  I could choose from dozens of cases in point.[iv] But here I will provide only two examples, both of major consequence, and both with global implications, one from government and one from business.

I have no way of knowing the future fate of Vladimir Putin, the recently reelected president of Russia. But I do know this: during 2012 he has been forced to face a popular opposition that to Russians has been, heretofore, alien. Once again, blame or credit goes to changes in culture and technology. Together they have put a chink in the armor of Putin the strongman, and in ways he could never have imagined even a year ago.

Putin is in the Russian tradition – an autocrat, not a democrat. Moreover, unlike several other Eastern European countries, say, for example, neighbors to the West such as  Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia has little or no history of democracy, and the Russian people have little or no experience with political participation – until now. It turns out that in response to Putin’s latest six-year term as president – he had already served either as president or prime minister for fully 13 years – at least some Russians concluded they were fed up, fed up with autocratic leadership.

To be sure, the opposition to Putin remains relatively small, sentiments in Moscow and St. Petersburg do not necessarily reflect sentiments in the rest of the country, and the wait for significant political change will likely be long. But, this does not alter the fact that from here on in Putin has to watch his back. As one observer noted when Putin assumed the presidency yet again, “It is clear at least in Moscow that something in the political atmosphere has changed. Russia’s protest movement appears to have entered a new and unpredictable stage….”[v]

Since early 2012, Putin has faced an array of challenges to his individual and institutional power, including tens of thousands of political opponents taking to the streets; young volunteers turning out in large numbers to help the flood-devastated town of Krymsk, in spite of government skittishness about all such volunteer efforts; individual actors such as prominent blogger and activist Aleksei Navalny, socialite and putative political journalist Ksenai Sobchak, and former world chess champion Gary Kasparov, all of whom belong to an inchoate but nevertheless now apparently permanent protest movement. There is also, of course, the irresistibly named and now notorious “Pussy Riot,” three women punk rockers first imprisoned and then sentenced to two years in prison for “hooliganism” – for taking on Putin and, arguably, foolishly, the Russian Orthodox Church at one and the same time.

Putin is, of course, taking none of this lying down. He has responded in the only way he knows how – by repressing the opposition in so far as he dare. He has jailed and otherwise harassed his political opponents; signed a new law imposing steep fines on participants in rallies that purportedly cause harm to people or property; leveled charges of embezzlement against the man who is his most charismatic and persistent critic, Navalny; and generally tightened government control over everything from the internet to nonprofits. Still, Russians have changed – some number content no longer to remain politically passive. And the context has changed as well. In general, at the international level, autocracy is out and democracy is in. As Putin is destined daily to rediscover, he is condemned to live in interesting times.

While it might seem on the surface that leaders in business remain generally unscathed – more or less immune to the temper of the times, enfeebled leaders and empowered followers – they are not. It’s true that nearly no CEOs have suffered the slings and arrows of the law – however they bent or even broke the rules, especially in financial services. And, it is equally true that those at the top (especially in the U. S.) are paid lavishly, extravagantly, especially in relation to those in the middle and at the bottom. Still, to say that unlike leaders in the public sector, leaders in the private sector are exempt from the fury of their followers is wrong.

Some of this is simply stylistic: in the 21st century leaders and managers are generally obliged to be, well, nice to their followers, or, at least, relatively nice. That is, “nice” relative to what would have been expected, say, a quarter or half century ago. The language of leadership reflects the decline of command and control, and the concomitant rise of the flattened hierarchy, the empowered employee, and the ever-present team. This change in leadership style has implications for institutions – down with the traditional pyramid! – and for individuals. 

For example, for a superior to scream at an inferior is considered now to be old-fashioned, politically incorrect, and sometimes even risky. This from the Wall Street Journal: “The yelling boss appears to be quietly disappearing from the workplace. The new consensus among managers is that yelling alarms people, drives them away rather than inspiring them, and hurts the quality of their work. Some bosses also fear triggering a harassment lawsuit or winding up as the star of a co-worker’s cell-phone videotape gone viral.”[vi] Notice the motivations – on the one hand self interest, and on the other self-protection. But whatever the incentives, in general, the workplace has become more civil, and most superiors, leaders, pressured to treat most inferiors, followers, with at least a modicum of decency and respect.[vii]

Other manifestations of diminished leaders, including or perhaps particularly CEOs, are not about style, but about substance. They include public humiliation (think Jamie Dimon and Robert Diamond). And frontal attacks by a range of players such as institutional investors, shareholder activists, ordinary shareholders, and even employees. (A proposal on executive pay that was put forth by a small group of workers appeared on this year’s proxy at Wal-Mart.)  And legal assaults such as those mounted by Gary Gensler, chair of the U. S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and by the European Commission, which has set in its sights the bonus culture in the financial services industry. And there is technology which, again, enables individuals on their own to organize (check out change.org), to communicate (check out glassdoor.com), and to act. (Check out Kickstarter – which describes itself as a “funding platform for creative projects,” enabling entrepreneurs to sidestep the few with deep pockets in favor of the many, through crowd funding.)

Finally there is growing power-sharing – CEOs increasingly obliged to share power they once wielded all on their own. Put bluntly, CEOs just “aren’t the bosses they used to be.” Under pressure, particularly from activist investors, increasing numbers of companies are splitting the roles of chief executive and chairman. By 2012 more than 20 percent of businesses in the S&P 500 Index had appointed an independent outsider as their chairman – up from 12 percent in 2007. As Joann Lublin put it in the Wall Street Journal, “The development is gradually creating a second seat of power at the top of big companies and easing CEOs’ grip on the one institution charged with overseeing their performance and decisions.”[viii] 

The phenomenon to which I refer is, in other words, nothing if not overarching.  Leading in modern times is heavy lifting, no matter whom you ask or where you look. How much have patterns of dominance and deference changed over time, even in the last decade or two? Consider this: Not long ago the dictates of the Vatican were, at least within the church, gospel. Now, church officials are obliged to deal with, among others, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which is composed of some 80 percent of all American nuns. In response to recent charges by the Vatican that they had failed properly to uphold Catholic doctrine, the nuns, through the Conference, charged first that the assessment against them was based on a “flawed process,” and second that it consisted of “unsubstantiated accusations.” In other words, American nuns, formerly meek and mild, refuse now to remain meek and mild. Like others similarly positioned – others without apparent power or authority – they have stayed neither completely silent nor compliant. No wonder we’re in a leadership crisis. No wonder exercising leadership is more arduous today than it was just yesterday. It’s a seismic shift to which we’re witness – though the leadership industry persists in taking scant notice.





[i] Harvard University, Center for Public Leadership, National Leadership Index, 2011.

[ii] “The Rise of Popularism,” July 24, 2012.

[iii] The End of Leadership, HarperCollins, 2012, p. xiii.

[iv] I cite such cases on a regular basis in my blog, “Lame Leaders/Fed Up Followers.” See barbarakellerman.com.

[v] Michael Schwartz, “A Russian Protest Leader Takes Center Stage,” New York Times, May 12, 2012.

[vi] Sue Shellenbarger, “When the Boss is a Screamer,” Wall Street Journal, August 15, 2012.

[vii] This is not to say that bully bosses are a thing of the past. Hardly – as the online evidence suggests, a large minority of workers have been at one or another point in their lives subjected to a hostile workplace environment. 

[viii] “More CEOs Sharing Control at the Top,” Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2012.

The Author:

Barbara Kellerman

Barbara Kellerman is the James McGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership, Center for Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She is the author of several books, the most recent of which is The End of Leadership (HarperCollins, 2012).



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