The West is in the throes of its most serious crisis of leadership since the 1970s.
In the most recent elections in the UK, voters had to choose between disaster (British Prime Minister Boris Johnson) and calamity (then-Labour candidate Jeremy Corbyn), while voters in the US had a menu of senescence (US President Joe Biden) and malignity (his predecessor, Donald Trump).
New German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is not a patch on the previous one, Angela Merkel, whose own reputation is being revised downward.
Illustration: Mountain People
The EU has a legitimacy-sacking weakness for choosing its leader from the ranks of machine politicians such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker.
The most impressive politician in Western Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron, has just had his wings clipped, losing his majority in the French National Assembly, with the parties of far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon and far-right leader Marine Le Pen making substantial gains.
Companies are acknowledging the shortcomings of the leadership class by clearing out their C-suites.
Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc said that 668 US CEOs left their posts in the first four months of this year, the highest January-to-May figure since the firm began tracking monthly CEO changes in 2002.
The same problem afflicts the nonprofit sector.
“We’ve been around for 26 years, and I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Gayle Brandel, CEO of PNP Staffing Group, an executive search firm that specializes in the sector.
What can explain this general crisis? Management guru Peter Drucker liked to point out that it was impossible to understand leadership without understanding followership.
The crisis of leadership is also — and perhaps primarily — a problem of followership. “Followers” often simply refuse to follow. Millions of people resigned during the COVID-19 pandemic to retire early or work for themselves, while millions more are ignoring stern injunctions to return to the office. Or else they make it clear that they will only follow if they are given a hefty raise.
Surliness is frequently mixed with angry hostility. Politicians are treated as devils incarnate. CEOs are mocked for pronouncing pieties about environmental, social and corporate governance while pocketing supersized salaries.
Asked why he was abandoning journalism for politics, Johnson replied that they do not put up statues to journalists.
These days the public is in the mood for tearing down statues rather than putting them up.
Leaders have traditionally used two devices to secure the loyalty of potential followers — deference and competence.
In the deference-based model, people followed their betters because they were born to rule. They possessed the blue blood of true aristocrats or the blessing of God. As a 19th century hymn put it, “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate.”
In the competence-based model, followers respect their leaders because they have superior knowledge or skills — they defer to them on condition that they can get things done.
The deference-based model has long since collapsed. You would be hard-pressed to find a monarchist who would justify British Prince Andrew’s conduct toward sex trafficking victim Virginia Giuffre.
However, in collapsing, the model has left a residue of resentment toward anyone who claims to be better than regular people.
Now the competence-based model is also under strain.
Everywhere you look, “so-called experts,” as British Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove called them, are having trouble doing their job.
Central banks’ failure to control inflation is only the most recent in a string of failures that includes stoking the bubble that burst in 2008. Airline CEOs preside over airport chaos and flight cancelations, while supermarket CEOs struggle to fill the shelves.
The collapse of these two models of leadership is reflected in figures indicating a decline of trust, which are at their worst in the US, but are also moving in the wrong direction in high-trust societies such as Sweden.
In the 1960s, most Americans trusted big institutions to do the jobs assigned to them — about 77 percent said that they trusted the US government to do the right thing most or all of the time.
Today these figures have collapsed. Business leaders vie with journalists and elected officials for the wooden spoon of the least trusted group.
The collapse is reinforced by the combination of the polarization of politics and the rise of new media. The right demonizes the left (and vice versa) on an ever-wider range of subjects, which now includes issues once above politics, such as national monuments and vaccination policy.
Replacing gatekeepers, the Internet broadcasts the ravings of nutters as effectively as the measured words of experts, if not more so.
How are followers to follow when half of the leadership class accuses the other of being traitors and when fake news mixes merrily with real news?
The most obvious result of the crisis is that it is getting harder to get things done. The New York Times, the Guardian and the Washington Post have all been convulsed by painful and time-consuming internal struggles, as journalists take it upon themselves to discipline their fellow scribes, often in internal chat rooms, but sometimes on Twitter, for alleged sins of one sort or another.
An exasperated article in the Intercept, a left-wing Web site, claimed that “the progressive advocacy space across the board,” from abortion rights advocates such as Planned Parenthood, the Guttmacher Institute and Pro-Choice America to environmental pressure groups such as the Sierra Club to social justice groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Color of Change, Movement for Black Lives and the Human Rights Campaign, has “more or less effectively ceased to function” because of internecine squabbles, most prominently between managers and workers.
“My last nine months, I was spending 90 to 95 percent of my time on internal strife,” one campaigner said.
“Progressive leaders cannot do anything but fight inside the orgs, thereby rendering the orgs completely toothless for the external battle in play,” another campaigner said.
“The toxic dynamic of whatever you want to call it — callout culture, cancel culture, whatever — is creating this really intense thing, and no one is able to acknowledge it, no one’s able to talk about it, no one’s able to say how bad it is,” a third said.
The crisis is also introducing a new power relationship into the heart of organizational life — leaders are becoming stars, and followers are becoming fans.
Populist leaders are more like a cross between pop stars and sports heroes than old-fashioned politicians. They adopt exotic personas, hold rallies in giant stadiums and devote their time to excoriating the enemy.
Before coming to office, Trump told his top aides that they should think of each presidential day “as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.”
The same dynamic is spreading to business.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has a hard core of fans — known as “Musketeers” — as well as nearly 100 million followers on Twitter.
“He can tell the future for me and you. He’s got a nose for knowin’ what to do,” Musk fan Jim Ocean sings in a composition titled The Future Smells like Elon Musk.
CEOs increasingly make crowd-pleasing pronouncements about contentious social issues such as racial justice and transgender rights.
However, the record of populist politicians suggests that this is a dangerous model.
The flip side of having fans is that you have anti-fans who will do everything they can to make your life a misery. Political stars find it more difficult than old-fashioned leaders to deliver concrete results.
Trump’s presidency ended in disgrace, while Johnson is struggling to hold onto his job after 148 British lawmakers, or 41 percent of his party’s caucus, voted that they had no confidence in him.
They also become prisoners of their fans — if they fail to deliver “madder music and stronger wine,” they can be dumped for someone who will.
Musk’s high-profile bid to take over Twitter has earned him a lot of enemies, particularly in the Democratic Party establishment, without so far producing tangible results.
CEOs’ general flirtation with popular causes has also annoyed conservatives, most obviously in the case of Walt Disney Co in Florida’s debate over sex education, while sometimes turning them into prisoners of advocacy groups.
Persuading people to put their trust in leaders again would be the work of decades, if it is possible at all in an Internet-driven world.
Policymakers need to focus on increasing social mobility rates, searching for talent in every corner of society.
The relations between “leaders” and “followers” are progressively poisoned by a growing sense that the people at the top of organizations belong to a discrete ruling class that, as well as lacking roots in the wider society, looks after its own members.
Organizations need to focus on their core functions rather than sprawling into secondary issues. Central banks should focus on controlling inflation rather than addressing climate change or advancing diversity.
Sprawling outside their core remit is dangerous at the best of times, as it involves diluting institutional attention, but also raising unrealistic expectations.
Sprawling while failing to execute their core function is a guarantee of a crisis of legitimacy.
“To be trusted institutions must be trustworthy, and to be trustworthy institutions must be competent,” Hoover Institution researchers John Cogan and Kevin Warsh wrote in a bracing new essay.
In the shorter term, leaders can do several things to make “followership” more palatable.
Pick your battles carefully: Trying to force people back to the office if the data demonstrate that they can do their job equally well at home is foolish.
Devolve as much operational decisionmaking to people at the front line, in line with former US secretary of state Colin Powell’s dictum that “the commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong unless proved otherwise.”
Break down the walls between “leaders” and “followers” by giving as many members of the team as possible a temporary role as leader. This has the beneficial consequence of showing the rest of us what leaders must put up with.
Above all, give more recognition to the role of “followers.” Business schools put on innumerable courses on how to be an effective leader. How about a few on how to be an effective follower, particularly given that all leaders, however spectacular their careers, might have to spend some time taking orders.
Companies gear their reward system to managers, as if telling people what to do is intrinsically worth more than, say, inventing a new product or solving a technical problem. How about linking reward systems to added value rather than spans of control?
Calling for better followers does not have the same rhetorical ring as calling for better leaders, but if we are to address the crisis of authority paralyzing the West’s politics and spreading, with worrying speed, to the business world, it is just as vital.
Adrian Wooldridge is a global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and a former writer at the Economist.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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