Leaders in search of followership

By Journalist Kenneth Mikkelsen
5 October 2012

On a breezy evening of November 4th 2008, thousands of people flocked to the streets of downtown Chicago. The excitement grew as the crowds made their way down Michigan Avenue and its neighbouring streets towards Grant Park. Finally, after nearly two years of intense campaigning in primaries and the general election, people would learn the name of the 44th president of America.

Just after 11 pm, as the polls closed on the West Coast, Obama was named the winner of the election and caused the crowd in and around the park to erupt into an historic moment of jubilation. Everywhere, people let their emotions run free as the Blues Brothers’ song, “Sweet Home Chicago”, rocked the air. Around midnight, the newly elected president, Barack Obama walked onto the blue-carpeted stage with his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, Malia and Sasha, to celebrate the victory.

“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America,” Obama told the roaring crowd in Grant Park.

Barack Obama’s remarkable journey to the White House and his role as the world’s most powerful leader is a central story in a recent book, The End of Leadership, by Barbara Kellerman, professor in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and an esteemed expert on leadership and followership. In her book, Barbara Kellerman takes a critical look at modern leaders and why we are so fascinated by them and often blindly pursue the idea of great leaders.

The End of Leadership challenges a widely spread perception that learning about and copying the traits and characteristics of a few good men and women is a fast track to success. Kellerman urges us to increasingly support the focus on individual leaders’ personal traits with a broader understanding of followership and the context that leaders operate within when we develop leaders.

The illusion of hero-leaders

When Americans rallied to support Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, it reflected widespread wishful thinking − that here was a hero of our times, a great man who had overcome difficult odds to bring about change and to cure what is ailing the American society; a human incarnation of “the audacity of hope.” But according to Barbara Kellerman, reality has caught up with Obama and his followers.

“We looked at Obama as our first black president, a different kind of leader. He promised change and we believed in it. But within weeks, months, it was clear that this presidency would be quite similar to other presidencies. There are those who argue that we are hardwired to look for and long for hero-leaders. If you look throughout the entire course of human history, you will see that in the past, much more than the present, we have had individual leaders, whether queens and kings, whether presidents or prime ministers, who are much more powerful and authoritative than leaders seem to be now.

But leadership changes all the time. It is not now what it was, and even if we are still hardwired to look or long for hero-leaders, the evidence certainly is that there are so few and far between. Every time a person is asked who their favourite leader is, the person that comes to mind is invariable for a decade or two – Nelson Mandela. Now why does everybody name Nelson Mandela? It is because there are very few like him. Very few in the 21st century who feel they can be called hero-leaders. The consequences of our longing are that we are certain or doomed to be disappointed,” says Barbara Kellerman.

In the 19th century, The Great Man Theory of Leadership was propounded by historian Thomas Carlyle, who declared: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Nowadays, the appraisal of the great man doesn’t resonate well with reality. Kellerman states that humankind writ large is suffering from a crisis of confidence in those who are charged with leading wisely and well, and from a surfeit of mostly well-intentioned, but in the end false, promises made by those who were supposed to make things better.

“The recession has likely played a part in this perception, as have a rash of recent corporate scandals. Still, this lack of confidence in corporate leaders is part of a broader picture, in which those at the top are much less trusted, appreciated, and admired than previously. The situation in business is different from the situation in government. In government we have leaders who are perceived by and large as unable to do what they are supposed to do, to lead. In business we have leaders who are perceived by and large as able to do what they are supposed to do, to lead, but who nevertheless do so in ways that disappoint and dishearten,” says Barbara Kellerman.

As a result, the level of trust in and approval of leaders and the companies they represent is at an all-time low. In 2011, a Gallup poll confirmed that corporate America is in disrepute. 62 per cent of Americans want major corporations to have less influence in the future than they do at present, up 10 per cent from a decade earlier. Additionally, corporate America is considered to be too powerful: fully 67 per cent of those polled said they resented the influence of big business.

Leadership is an equilateral triangle

In 1998, Caroline Alexander published a remarkable book, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. The book tells the story of 28 shipwrecked sailors and their heroic survival in 1914-15. The men, led by polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, had set sail from Europe in August 1914, just days before the outbreak of the First World War, with the mission of becoming the first expedition to cross the Antarctic. In the Weddell Sea, their ship was trapped in the drifting pack ice and left the expedition stranded on an ice floe. Shackleton eventually ordered everyone into the open lifeboats and, after five days, the crew came upon the deserted ice-covered Elephant Island. Here, Shackleton picked six men to cross the world’s stormiest seas in an attempt to reach a whaling station 800 miles away on the island of South Georgia.

Two weeks later, the six men made it ashore. Shackleton and two of his men then crossed a mountain range and, after 36 hours, made it to the whaling station. He then sent a boat to rescue the men who had stayed behind on the south shore. After an appeal to the Chilean government, Shackleton borrowed a steam ship and was finally able to rescue the 22 remaining men on Elephant Island, who had waited patiently for him for almost five months.

Alexander’s book catapulted the mesmerising story to a larger contemporary audience. Now, more than a decade later, the story has been turned into a stream of management books that praise Shackleton as a great leader, from whom you can learn all there is to know about successful leadership. Today, the US Naval Academy cites Shackleton as a model leader, and esteemed business schools also refer to his merits in their leadership curriculum.

This fixation on the leader by the leadership industry is another strong point in Barbara Kellerman’s book. In her opinion, the industry also thrives on the assumption that leadership is a skill, which everyone everywhere should aspire to acquire; that all sorts of people, from different backgrounds, and with different experiences and areas of expertise can acquire leadership skills. And that it can be learned quickly and easily—over a period of months, or even a weekend. In Kellerman’s words, being a leader has become a mantra and yet the tireless teachings about leadership have brought us no closer to leadership nirvana.

“I wish that my own industry would take a less reductionist approach to leadership education. If you are only going to look at leaders as so many leadership training and management programs do, and if you are going to ignore followers and context, you are unfortunately going to miss two sides of what I consider an equilateral triangle,” Barbara Kellerman emphasizes.

According to Barbara Kellerman, the leadership industry is focusing too narrowly on the individual leader and less on the context and followership, because it is easily marketable to busy executives with short attention spans. It is a logic that speaks directly to some of our deepest and most primitive human needs.  


“Even if the leadership industry is now global, it originates from the US and it is very much in keeping with the American how-to mentality. We Americans tend to believe that we can learn how to do almost anything, whether it is swimming or playing the piano or becoming a leader. That is part of our culture. There is also the presumption that being a leader −in sharp contrast to being a follower −is good in and by itself. It is considered a path to having power, authority and influence, and, usually, money. And it is considered a path to personal and professional fulfilment as well as to goal achievement,” Barbara Kellerman tells.

It is interesting to look at why Shackleton excelled during the expedition in 1914-15 in connection with Barbara Kellerman’s equilateral triangle where the leader, the followers, and the context each play their part. When the context changed from a mission of exploration to a mission of survival, Shackleton managed to reinvent the team’s goals and he improvised, adapted and used every resource at hand to achieve it. He also earned and was granted the respect of his fellow crewmembers by leading as an example and showing them loyalty and obligation, for instance by climbing the mountains on South Georgia to reach the whaling station. Last but not least he had faith in himself and his abilities. But does this qualify him to be proclaimed as one of the greatest leaders in history?

The truth is that there is another side to the story that is often left out. After his return to England in 1917, Shackleton started several ill-fated business ventures. Among them were a tobacco company, a collector stamp printing business and a Hungarian mining company. Each of them failed, and in the end he died heavily in debt. It is fair to say that Shackleton was a successful leader of one of the most difficult missions in human history, but the truth is also that he had difficulty replicating it in other aspects of his life when he faced a new situation and was not surrounded by the 27 followers from the expedition to Antarctica.

A shifting power balance

As the financial crisis continues to influence most of the world, there is a growing concern about the lack of responsible leadership. But is it in reality also a crisis of followership? A cultural evolution and technological revolution have shifted the balance of power between leaders and followers over time − with leaders becoming weaker and followers stronger. Barbara Kellerman argues that it makes leading even more difficult − not only because we have too many bad leaders, but also because we have too many bad followers. In the United States many people don’t vote at all, or vote along strict or even extreme ideological lines, which makes it difficult for political leaders to do what they must− to collaborate to compromise.

“Bad followers come in all different varieties. Sometimes they are bad because they stand by and do absolutely nothing. Particularly when it comes to pocketbook issues and understanding that if they want to receive these benefits, these benefits actually need to be paid for. So how do you pay for them? Among other things, it can be solved by paying higher taxes and increasing the age at which you start receiving benefits. But these things are politically very difficult, and I am always reminded of the case of Sarkozy in 2010. He wanted to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and two million French people took to the streets to protest. Now is that good followership? Not particularly; at least not in my book,” says Barbara Kellerman.

A digital revolution

In just 15 years the Internet has profoundly impacted the relations between leaders and followers. Especially the emergence of social media has made information instant and available to nearly everyone everywhere – with serious implications. WikiLeaks, the Arab Spring and the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement are just some of the more recent events where the engagement in collective conversation and dissemination of information has shifted the balance of power. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have in other words become powerful weapons in the hands of dissatisfied voters, employees and customers around the world. The development also signifies an important generational gap between the young tech-savvy generation and, in most cases, those who are a generation or two older and act in leadership positions.

As recently as late 2010, 64 per cent of American CEOs were not using social media of any kind for the purpose of connecting with their boards, employees and customers. According to Barbara Kellerman, they are missing out on a considerable advantage and wasting an opportunity to lead and manage in cyberspace.

“This is not to say that CEOs don’t reach out—they do. But the large majority of them continue to do so in ways that are decidedly old-fashioned, by being quoted in the news or by speaking directly to different audiences at different events. This leaves only about a third of CEOs who engage with their stakeholders, their followers, by employing technologies such as their own corporate websites, podcasts, blogs, or YouTube channels, or through social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn,” Barbara Kellerman explains.

The new social contract

On March 14th 2012, Greg Smith handed in his resignation after almost 12 years of service. It was an act that must have caused his bosses at Goldman Sachs’ headquarters in New York to choke on their coffee as they sat down to read the morning newspaper. In the opinion section of The New York Times, his resignation was delivered in the shape of a frank column. Mr. Smith, who was the head of Goldman’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, claimed that clients’ interests were side-lined in how the firm operated and thought about making money. According to Mr. Smith, leadership in the firm used to be about ideas, setting an example and doing the right thing. But something went wrong along the way. And the now former employee blamed this cultural change personally on Goldman Sachs’ CEO, Lloyd C. Blankfein and its president, Gary D. Cohn.

The incident shows how the life of leaders is more and more exposed. But, according to Barbara Kellerman, it is also a manifestation of a changing social contract between leaders and followers.

“We presume that people get elected president or prime minister, or for that matter mayor, because they deserve to, because their capacities attest to the legitimacy of their claims to power, authority, and influence. And, similarly, we presume that people are selected to be chief executive officer based on their excellence, a professional history that testifies to their superiority as leaders and managers. But when the contract between leaders and followers is based on merit, as opposed to self-interest, the game changes.

That is, if merit is perceived to be lacking, either because the leader is seen as being in some serious way corrupt, or because the leader is seen as being in some serious way inept, the contract is weakened or even abrogated altogether. Again, we go along with our leaders and managers, particularly in the workplace, for any number of self-interested reasons, including the benefits of material reward and the fear of personal or professional punishment. But the best reason, certainly the ideal reason, to follow, is that we want to follow − because we genuinely believe in the integrity and competence of those with power, authority and influence. Small wonder, then, that when merit matters most, and when merit is viewed as meagre or even absent altogether, disappointment and disillusionment set in,” says Barbara Kellerman.

“No matter how many leadership skills and personal characteristics a leader possesses, it ultimately boils down to two crucial things, according to Barbara Kellerman. A good leader must be ethical and a good leader must be effective.”

Tarred and feathered

Maintaining privacy as a leader is harder than ever with smartphones present on every street corner and 24/7 publication channels like Twitter and YouTube. In this day and age, followers feel entitled to pry into their leaders’ private lives − and to hold them accountable for what they do. As the culture changes and technology along with it, followers today are familiar with the flaws of leaders, with the foibles of leaders, as they never were before. Chief executives’ every move is scrutinised, analysed and criticised, not only what they do in the present, but also what they did in the past.

“Barack Obama, for example, has been looked at every which way: where he was born; what was the impact on him of his black African father and his white American mother; what is the nature of his faith and of his marriage; how does his mind work and what motivates him; what is his core character and is he introverted or extroverted; what is the nature of his leadership style; and what, given everything we know about him, will he do next? This brings us to the leader’s position. Whether president or prime minister, chancellor or royal, senator or mayor, the office at the top has been diminished − and is unlikely ever to be restored to its former glory,” says Barbara Kellerman.

It seems like the more we know about how leaders lead and managers manage, the more they tend to shrink. What this familiarity has bred, according to Barbara Kellerman, is contempt.

”CEOs of large publicly held companies, will increasingly come under the same kind of pressure as political leaders. They already are. The tenure of corporate leaders is shorter than it used to be. The number of corporate shareholder activism is going up and in my view it is not much longer before shareholders will be able and will make use of the technology for connecting and for voting against. We have already seen this with increasing frequency, whether it is voting against pay raises for CEOs or decisions CEOs would like to make. Both blogs and shareholder activists will be more difficult for CEOs to deal with in the future than they have been in the past,” says Barbara Kellerman.

In 2011, the German Minister of Defence, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, one of the country’s most popular politicians and widely regarded a potential future chancellor, was forced to withdraw from politics. His downfall was caused by a persistent group of online activists that proved he had plagiarised large parts of his four-hundred-page doctoral thesis. The online campaign against him was so relentless that he finally withdrew from public life.

Lessons for leaders

When King Juan Carlos of Spain broke his hip on the way to the bathroom in a luxury safari camp in Botswana earlier this year, he, too, was taught a lesson in modern leadership. The accident revealed that the King was in Africa to hunt elephants during one of the worst crises in Spain’s history. When this became known to the general public, it caused a previously unheard-of public outcry in Spain. The King was openly criticised for setting a bad example and for being insensitive to both the endangered animal and the economic situation in the country. In the end, the King finally did apologise for his actions.

The End of Leadership is packed with examples of leaders who have not understood how the recent years’ cultural and technological changes impact their profession. In her book, Barbara Kellerman refrains from providing a ready-made recipe for how to develop better leaders, but she suggests that we take a stroll back in time when, in many ways, leadership was taken much more seriously than now and where mastery thereof was perceived to be a journey of lifelong learning. Two of the world’s leading thinkers, Confucius and Plato, were both strong advocates of this viewpoint.

According to Confucius, the ideal leader was a role model and a gentleman worth emulating and following, because he was older, wiser and more farsighted. Whereas Plato’s ideal education would, in effect, be lifelong and deeply rooted in a range of topics, most of them not in any obvious way connected to leadership as we perceive it, including literature, music, basic and advanced mathematics, philosophy and metaphysics, physical exercise, and experience in both the civil service and military.

“If we are talking about growing people who, whether in the economic, political, religious or educational realm, have a broader approach to the common good, then we need to re-examine the way we are raising or educating leaders and even followers. Plato’s idea of how you grow a leader is not exactly by taking leadership courses, from one semester to one weekend or two months. I am not saying that we have to adapt it precisely, but I think there are some valuable lessons to be learned. It was a far longer process, a much richer process. He believed that in order to grow leaders, it was years of learning, years of experience, different kinds of experiences in everything from music to math – he believed in the broadest possible approach.

And so did several of the great leader thinkers who go back in many cases, hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. It is the contemporaneous type of leadership industry that has assumed without any other evidence whatsoever, that leadership can be taught to many people simultaneously, a large class of people, and that it can be taught in a very short period of time, and those are the assumptions that I very much question,” Barbara Kellerman finishes.

In March, Obama kick-started his campaign for the upcoming presidential election in style by launching a 17-minute documentary, “The Road We’ve Traveled”, directed by Academy Award Winner Davis Guggenheim, best known for “An Inconvenient Truth”, and narrated by Academy Award Winner Tom Hanks. The documentary profiles Obama as a leader who has managed to lead the United States responsibly through his first term. But the style and tone of the campaign has changed since 2008. Instead of talking about change, Obama now appeals to voters by emphasising the importance of a long haul and continuity.

Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, it seems that Americans will get the leadership they deserve −but it might not necessarily be the kind of leadership they want.

About Barbara Kellerman

Barbara KellermanBarbara 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, from 2000 to 2003; and from 2003 to 2006 she served as the Center’s Research Director. She also served as Dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Fairleigh Dickinson, and as Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Leadership at the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland.

Kellerman was cofounder of the International Leadership Association (ILA), and is author and editor of many books, among others: Bad Leadership (2004); Followership (2008); Women and Leadership (co-edited in 2008 with Deborah Rhode); Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence (2010); and The End of Leadership (2012).

Visit Barbara Kellerman’s personal blog.

Barbara Kellerman discusses some of the core topics of her book in this video.

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