July | August 2017

I had been writing books and articles about leadership for years when, overnight or so it seemed, I became a contrarian. It all started when I began to speculate about why my field—leadership studies or leadership education or leadership development—was so fixated on good leaders and so entirely without interest in bad leaders. Put differently, there are a gazillion books on how to become a good leader and nearly none on how to stop, or at least slow, a bad leader. So I sought to rectify, at least slightly, the problem by writing an entire book on the subject—“Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters.”
In writing this book I realized viscerally—not only intellectually, but also viscerally—that there is no such thing as bad leadership without bad followership. This would seem counterintuitive. When we explain or try to explain bad outcomes—whether genocide, corruption or merely inefficiency—our tendency is to blame the person in charge. But when we peel back the onion, we can see clearly that no single individual is responsible for what happens. Inevitably, the bad leader has at least some followers who play a part and bear some responsibility. I remind my various audiences that of Hitler it is said he killed 6 million Jews. Then I go on to ask this question, “How many Jews did Hitler actually kill?” The correct answer is, of course, none. He, like other tyrants, had followers do his dirty work for him. And so, to explore this particular phenomenon I wrote another book, this one similarly contrarian—“Followership: How Followers Create Change and Change Leaders.”

Importance of Followers

Leadership experts do typically say something—in passing—about followers. They do realize leadership is relational—you cannot have a leader without at least one follower. But for a range of reasons—some of them obvious, some less so—leadership experts give followers short shrift. More precisely, they tend to ignore them entirely. To reframe some of the numbers I earlier cited, there are a gazillion books on leaders and nearly none on followers. It turns out, though, that followers have always been important, much more important than historically we have given them credit for. And, it similarly turns out that for several reasons, they are more important in the 21st century than they ever have been before. In fact, followers explain in large part why leadership in America has become so notoriously difficult to exercise.
My newfound awareness of the importance of followers led me to pay newfound attention to the relationship between leaders and followers, that is, to the leader-follower dynamic. This, in turn, led to another book—“The End of Leadership.” In this book I take on two tasks. One is to provide a critical commentary on what I call the leadership industry—my catchall term for the “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.” The other, more extensive and expansive part of the book is a close look at how leadership in the 21st century is different from what it was before, how in democracies in particular the balance between leaders and followers has shifted in ways that are disadvantageous to the former and advantageous to the latter.
To be sure, the evolution of relations between leaders and followers is not new. To the contrary: Leadership and followership have evolved throughout human history. Beginning with the Enlightenment, marked by the American and French revolutions and continuing into the 19th and 20th centuries, there has been an expansion of democratization in both theory and practice. Now we are at a point where many more nations are democracies than autocracies; where there is less respect for authority in every realm, including religion, than there used to be; and where power and influence continue to devolve from the top down. For their part, followers, ordinary people, have an expanded sense of entitlement—demanding more, giving less and demonstrating a far lower level of tolerance, not to speak of admiration, for people in positions of authority now than they did even as recently as 30, 40 years ago.

Impact of Technology and Context

Some of this leveling between leaders and followers is attributable simply to the trajectory of history. But in the late 20th and early 21st centuries there have been two other phenomena that have further fueled this shift, which further exacerbated the problems of leaders and further enhanced the capacity of followers to interfere with or even interrupt leaders’ best laid plans. I refer to the changes in culture—and to the changes in technology.
Until recently, someone like me—a professor in an institution of higher education—was called professor or maybe even doctor. Now students are likely as not to summon me by my first name, even if they’ve never met me before. Similarly, we used to defer to authority figures more generally, such as, for instance, physicians. We would take their word as gospel and do what they told us to do. Now, though, we tend to pocket our physicians’ instructions and then second-guess them by getting another opinion or, more likely, another 10,000 opinions by checking the Internet. Put directly, since the various rights revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s, there has been a screamingly obvious leveling in America between those who are in positions of power and authority and those who are not.
The effects of the revolution in technology—especially social media—have been similar. The various technologies now enable followers—ordinary people like you and me—to obtain information to which we never before had access; to express our attitudes and opinions to a degree that historically is unprecedented; and to connect with each other in ways that, until recently, were inconceivable. We know more than we ever did. We have a voice we never had before. And as House Speaker John Boehner might be the first to testify, we have the temerity to organize in ways that make life difficult or even impossible for those in positions of ostensible authority.
There is one more explanation for why limits on leaders are so obvious and, in some cases, even onerous. For this is a story not only about leaders and about followers, it is also a story about the context within which they are embedded. In my forthcoming book, “Hard Times: Leadership in America,” I explore how context impinges on leaders’ capacity to lead. One quick example—the law. Whatever the virtues of the law in 21st century America, there can be no doubt the relatively new rigid regulatory environment makes leading now harder, more complex, than it was before. In the old days, a school principal had to worry about only three stakeholders—students, staff and, maybe, some interested parents. Now, school principals have to worry about a whole host of additional stakeholders—including regulators at the federal, state and local levels—in addition to their various constituents who have not only multiplied in number, but also become far more clamorous and more demanding.
The bottom line is this: There are reasons why, as poll after poll confirms, leaders in 21st century America are in historically low repute. And they are not, at least not primarily, related to the leaders themselves. It’s not, in other words, that leaders now are radically different from what they were before, radically lesser than what they were. Rather, it is that we, the American people, have changed—and the context has similarly changed. No wonder it’s harder for leaders—all leaders across the board—to lead now than it was only a decade or two ago.
No wonder America seems stuck, so many of our problems apparently intractable. No wonder so many Americans—66 percent—believe their country is moving in the wrong direction, and so few Americans—30 percent—believe their country is moving in the right direction, according to an April ABC News/Washington Post poll. As I write in “The End of Leadership,” these are not problems destined to be without solutions. But the solutions are not likely in the leadership industry, which continues to obsess about leaders while it ignores nearly entirely followers, not to speak of the context within which both necessarily need to operate.