GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Precarious Perch by Barbara Kellerman, author of "The End of Leadership."
Our fixation is on leaders.
We assume that they have the keys to the kingdom, that they have most if not all of the power and influence, and that they make the decisions that most matter.
The fact is that leaders are increasingly vulnerable to forces beyond their control – and that followers are increasingly more entitled, emboldened, and empowered. Leaders, in short, are in decline, followers are on the rise.
It seems a paradox. On the one hand it’s contrary to conventional wisdom.
In fact over the last forty years we have built an entire industry – I call it the leadership industry – on the proposition that learning to lead is a path to personal as well as professional fulfillment, and a medium, the medium for achievement. But on the other hand not a day goes by that fails to attest yet again to the shifting balance between leaders and followers – leaders growing weaker and followers stronger. It is everywhere in evidence: at home and abroad, in business and government, leaders buffeted by others who threaten their position.
What accounts for this change?
The first thing to be said is the trend is not new. Over the course of human history power and influence have trickled down, from those at the top to those in the middle and even at the bottom. Think of the American and French revolutions - or of the rights revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s, including civil rights, women’s rights and, later, gay and lesbian rights.
"The degradation of American culture gives us license to pry and probe into our leader’s personal lives, and to diminish and demean their professional performances."
More recently it’s changes in culture and technology that have stoked the fires of popular objection and rejection. The degradation of American culture gives us license to pry and probe into our leader’s personal lives, and to diminish and demean their professional performances. At the same time technology has bestowed on us, on ordinary people, information previously the preserve of the high and mighty - as well as radically new ways of expressing and connecting. While the so-called Arab Spring was the most dramatic recent example of how seemingly suddenly those lower down can turn against those higher up, this sea change in the balance of power is now everywhere, every day, obvious.
Three recent examples:
• Joseph Kony, the cruel and corrupt longtime Ugandan warlord, finally met his match in Invisible Children, a charity in San Diego that up to now was itself, virtually invisible. It posted a video - “Kony 2012” - depicting the tyrant’s atrocities simply and graphically, which promptly went viral. At last count it had been viewed more than 86 million times, obliging even the American president publicly to tow the anti-Kony line.
• Rush Limbaugh, king of the radio and, some would argue, of the Republican Party, faced the most serious rebellion against him in his more than twenty years on the air. For Limbaugh’s repeated and revolting attackson Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, some 52 of his advertisers decided to bail, preferring not to risk public wrath by associating their name with his.
• Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs , had to endure yet another public flogging, this time in an editorial in The New York Times , written by his previous subordinate at Goldman, Greg Smith. Smith charged that while leadership at Goldman used to be about “doing the right thing,” it had morphed in recent years to being “all about making the most possible money off” of clients.
None of this is to say that Kony is about to be felled, or that Limbaugh will be exiled, or that Blankfein is at immediate risk of being sacked. Rather it is to point out that in the second decade of the 21st century all leaders are vulnerable to followers ready, willing, and sometimes even able to push them from their perch.
Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. She was the founding executive director of the Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership and served as its research director. She was ranked by Forbes.com among the Top 50 Business Thinkers in 2009 and by Leadership Excellence in the top 15 of the 100 "best minds on leadership" in 2008 and 2009. In 2010 she was given the Wilbur M. McFeeley Award for her pioneering work on leadership and followership. She is author and editor of many books, including, most recently, "The End of Leadership."