Every nation has its founding myths – myths about its genesis that not only endure, but that set the state for whatever is subsequent. This chapter explores how it matters to leadership in 21st century America that our Founders were revolutionaries, leaders who first were followers, subjects of the British Crown, until they successfully seized power and authority by force. Antiauthority attitudes and practices are, then, part of the American political system and national character in a way that they are not, or, at least, have not always been of other political systems and national characters. Moreover, precisely because political leadership in America has always been so difficult to exercise, so have other forms of leadership, including business leadership. There is, a corollary, a relationship, between them.
There is a distinction between an ideology imagined and an ideology realized. This explains why the Declaration of Independence claimed that "all men are created equal" while, simultaneously, slavery in America flourished. Still, what Americans believe to be right and good and true constitutes their collective conscience, and it constrains the governing few as it, to a degree at least, liberates the governed many. The American Ideology led logically to the American Creed – including components such as liberty, individualism, and democracy – which explain its antigovernment character. As Samuel Huntington put it, "opposition to power" is the central theme of American political thought – which is why putting power, and our attitude toward power, in an historical framework sheds light on how it is that to this day leadership in America is hard to exercise.
Never in American history has religion not played a role in our collective life. In fact, from the beginning of the Republic, America's leaders, especially but not exclusively its political leaders, understood the importance of religion to the body politic, and they embraced it, at least publicly, and used it to their advantage. For most of American history this was relatively easy, because for most of American history the United States of America was tantamount to Christian America – even Protestant America. Now, though, things are different. Now the mantra is diversity and inclusiveness, heterogeneity not homogeneity. While this is a change to be welcomed, it does deprive leaders of a resource – the claim to a unified America made on the grounds of its being a Christian America.
In the second decade of the 21st century Americans have got to a point where the leadership class is held in downright disdain. As one saddened observer put it, "The very idea of government as an instrument of good is challenged, perhaps even abandoned. Being a politician is disreputable and contempt for politics a free for all." Some of the reasons for this are external – imposed on the U. S. from the outside – and some of the reasons are internal. No doubt we Americans have injured ourselves. The implications in any case are clear: declining dislike and distrust of leaders by followers makes leadership more difficult to exercise. Dysfunction in Washington particularly pollutes. It is a depressant: it depresses our willingness to abide freely, even gladly, by the social contract long since struck between the governed and their governors.
Since the 19th century the widespread assumption has been that America is nearly by nature a capitalist country - and that capitalism has largely been a success. This success has not been without interruption, to wit the Great Depression and the recent recession. Withal, capitalism has not generally been called into question, even now, during a time in which Americans increasingly are unequal. However, the inability of the capitalist system so far to respond to some of America's most chronic economic problems, and of leaders to act in ways that are constructive, raises serious questions. The problems that American leaders face in this regard are by no means entirely self-induced; some are systemic. Still, the inability so far of America's leadership class to address some of the most chronic of our economic problems calls them into question– as well as the economic system they profess so fervently to support.
Given the perceived importance of American institutions, the relentless declines in institutional trust, over a period of nearly a half century, are disturbing. Among other reasons, these declines in trust ensnare not only the various institutions, but also those who lead and manage them. Institutions are something of an abstraction; individuals, in contrast, are not. For example, not only has our faith in American education declined – for good reason - so has our faith in America's educational leaders. One survey found that "educational leadership, so important to the country's future competitive strength, continues to languish in fifth place from the bottom, among the sectors in which Americans have 'not much 'confidence." As a result of this malaise, even the best and brightest of America's leaders are now saddled with a reputational problem which amounts, in effect, to a cumulative, considerable, and cumbersome burden.
The top-down management structure with which most of us are, even now, most familiar, first proliferated in the U. S. in the second half of the 19th century. However for several decades now, has been growing evidence that the burgeoning knowledge economy, as well as the proliferation of knowledge workers, might not exactly thrive on hierarchy. As a result, in recent years the conviction that organizations that were at least somewhat flatter were at least somewhat better gradually took hold. What this inevitably suggests is not the elimination of the leader, but their diminishment, at least in the sense that leaders now need to share power and influence in ways that previously were neither necessary nor sometimes even desirable. They particularly have to share power in areas where others know more than do they, which, in an era dominated by changing technologies, amounts to the rule not the exception.
That the United States of America is governed by the rule of law has long been considered one of its greatest strengths. However, in recent decades, the long arm of the law has intruded on the lives of leaders in ways and to a degree that is unprecedented. The law now impinges on leaders in government, and in business, and in nonprofits such as schools and hospitals, and in virtually every conceivable area of American life. Even religious leaders who, until relatively recently were generally immune to prosecution in the nation's courts, are now vulnerable. Inevitably this has an impact on how leaders lead and managers manage; inevitably it costs them in ways that might not be easy to calculate but clearly are considerable.
Our perception of corporate America in the second decade of the 21st century is in large part in consequence of what happened in, to, corporate America in the first decade of the 21st century. Beginning with the ignominious collapse of Enron in 2001, American business has seemed ever since somehow, somewhat tarnished. Nor did the recent financial crisis help the situation. In fact it led to what some have called a "collapse of trust in business." So far as leaders in corporate America are concerned then, what we have at this moment is something of a paradox. On the one hand they have generally been held legally blameless for whatever it was that went wrong – and they are earning record sums. But, on the other hand, they face challenges that complicate in unaccustomed ways the lives of those at the top.
Leaders in the second decade of the 21st century are generally disadvantaged by having been born before the information revolution. This revolution changed so much of such importance that leaders nearly across the board seem forever to be playing catch-up, trying to control a context that to them is as unknowable as uncontrollable. The magnitude of technological change and the speed of technological change are themselves daunting, the presence and reach of the Internet in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. For leaders across the board, then, 21st century technology presents two overweening challenges. First, it is of itself difficult to tame not to speak of master. Second, the Internet culture to which technology gave rise has transformed, and complicated, the context within which leadership is expected to be exercised.
Media have changed in ways that sometimes advantage leaders. There is, for example, less investigatory journalism, less watchdog journalism, less journalism that monitors leaders on behalf of followers. But to the story about the media in 21st century America there is another side, a side that is the reverse – leaders disadvantaged and followers advantaged. The new media environment makes it harder than before for leaders to control the news – both its production and dissemination. Put differently, the classic functions of journalism are being undermined not only by polarizing argumentation, and by a continuous news cycle, and by lower standards, and by news in bits and bites, but by online journalism that is well beyond the capacity of any single individual or even small group to control.
"Money" is such a key component of context it merits a discrete discussion. In particular, the impact of so much money in the hands of so few poured into so small a subsection of people and places is as powerful as it is pervasive. Money as power, as influence, is an inescapable fact of contemporary American life. It's become as American as apple pie – though with implications more malignant than benign. The importance of money to politics is the most glaring example: sometimes too little money, sometimes too much sloshing through the political system, the rich on the inside running the government and outside peddling influence. Disapproval and distrust of Washington is, then, not only because it is dysfunctional, but also because it is peopled by political elites tied inextricably to corporate élites, who it turns out are paid significantly more than their counterparts anywhere else in the world.
Americans once prided themselves on living in a country that was more innovative than any other. That was then. In recent years, beginning in the last quarter of the last century, Americans have become aware that they are no longer, necessarily, on the cutting edge. They are aware that in some areas other countries have surpassed theirs, which is why just mentioning innovation is now fraught. Leaders worry that even if they're ahead, they're in danger of falling behind. They worry because innovation has become a battleground on which they vie with with other leaders both at home and abroad in the race to stay out front. Of course not everyone sees the US as vulnerable. But most who know the most about innovation, and most leaders and managers, are worried about a world in which everything changes so fast the mere mention of innovation rings more perilous than promising.
So far as Americans are concerned, the biggest competitive change is, in fact, contextual. Americans compete now not only with each other, but also with people from other countries. This is not of course entirely new. But, as the literature on competition makes plain, the world in which we now live is one where the US is only one among a number of potentially rival nation states, any of which could surpass it in any number of given areas. For example, for the last several decades Americans did indeed compare their cars to cars manufactured in Germany or Japan. But until recently Americans would never have dreamed of comparing their educational systems to those in other areas, not to speak of in places such as Finland and Singapore. Now such competition and comparison is constant, the net effect on leaders is pressure to match if not supersede their competitors elsewhere.
We imagine sometimes – or at least we used to – that we live in a classless society. But the US never was a classless society, not at its inception and not now. In fact, it is not too much to say that one of the mantras in the last year has been America's growing inequality. There is a drumbeat of criticism now about the rich being too rich and getting incessantly richer, and the poor being too poor and getting poorer. Of course there is debate about what is happening and why, and who is to blame, and who should be responsible for fixing what's broke. Leaders are feeling the heat – and they should. For if the idea of equality turns out permanently to have morphed into the ideal of equity, the leadership class, which by and large is the upper class, will one day pay the piper.
It's a cliché, but a half century after the fact we still live in the world the sixties made. What's remarkable is how widespread was the assault on the status quo, and how enduring its legacy. As we have seen, the American Ideology was always antiauthority. But at some historical moments this fire gets fuelled, which is part of the reason why we now have different habits: since the 1960s we more freely challenge people in positions of authority; we more boldly assume democracy and flat hierarchy; and we feel greater empowerment to participate. Our voice is heard everywhere on every subject, in the real world or in the virtual one, on what should the president do and which restaurant to eat at and which doctor is best. Evidence of the leveling – between leaders and followers - is evident everywhere and everywhere is evidence of leaders descended and followers ascended.
Most Americans have become recently persuaded that the United States is a country divided – ideologically, demographically, economically, regionally, and religiously. Moreover, it is split simultaneously on many of the today's most important issues. First, the discussion focuses on general divides, such as those by income, ideology, and demographics. Second, the discussion focuses on specific divides, differences of opinion on issues such as the war in Iraq, same-sex marriage, and gun control. The section concludes with a consideration of the implications of this divisiveness for leaders - most obviously for political leaders, but also for leaders of other groups and organizations. What seems apparent is that the degree of divisiveness makes leading that much harder. It's difficult to lead followers when they themselves lack a sense of cohesion, of unity, of something bringing them together when so much is tearing them apart.
Interest groups used to be few in number and insignificant. They were players, but only at the margins of political life. Now they are not – now they are central. Now there are many interest groups – many, many interest groups. And now a good number of these interest groups are large and powerful, richly financed, and largely unregulated. What's new in other words is the extent of their reach and the degree, on account of the money and power that they wield, of their political clout. While these interest groups and their countless lobbyists are based primarily in Washington, their impact extends far beyond the nation's capital. By exercising influence that is so skewed toward the halves, as opposed to toward the have-nots, they are contributing handsomely to the idea that Washington is corrupt and that the system itself is corroded.
As leaders are learning, controlling climate change is difficult beyond imagining. It's a hydra-headed monster, theoretically involving every person and place on the planet, and including phenomena we can barely even begin to understand, everything from greenhouse gases to biodiversity to managing waste. "Climate change presents perhaps the most profound challenge ever to have confronted human social, political, and economic systems. But the social problem-solving mechanisms we currently possess were not designed, and have not evolved, to cope with anything like an interlinked set of problems of this severity, scale, and complexity." And yet leaders across the board would seem to have no choice but to become involved. The problem they face is how exactly. How exactly to make a difference in way that is politically feasible? How exactly to make a difference in a way that will make a difference?
Leaders have always been responsible for managing risk, especially downside risk. Managing risk is part of the job. So, what now is different? How are the challenges of managing risk in the 21st century different from what they were before? And why has the leadership industry become so fixated on risk management? This section discusses risk in general, and goes on then to discuss three risks to leaders, and of course to followers, in particular: terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and financial crises. The degree to which the world now is riskier than it used to be is debatable. What is not debatable is that leaders now are being made regularly and relentlessly aware of how vulnerable they are to crisis, ranging all the way from so-called "black swan" events to events that might reasonably be labeled "predictable surprises."
Mary Parker Follett once wrote that leaders should see "all the future trends and unite them." It's true, of course. Ideally leaders would be expert at foretelling the future. But in the real world the best most can do is to monitor existing trends. Leaders are in fact consumers of forecasters, knowing full well it is to their advantage to have some sense of what the future will hold – pertaining say to demographic patterns, or to changing technologies, or to shifts in what we think. But truth is that leaders are not much better than the rest of us at gazing into crystal balls. As former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, put it, who for all his widely acknowledged smarts was famously obtuse about the impending financial crisis, "The conventional method of predicting macroeconomic developments had failed when it was needed most."
The refrain remains the same. Leaders are getting weaker. They have less power. And they have less authority. And more often than not they also have less influence. This is not a rule without exceptions. But there is a good case to be made that one of the reasons why leaders in 21st century America find it hard to lead is that leadership itself, the act of leading per se, has been compromised, devalued. This is not, it should be emphasized, simply and solely an American phenomenon. As seasoned observers have noted, "big players are increasingly being challenged by newer and smaller ones" everywhere in the world. In other words, while, as Kellerman points out, power has been devolving, from the top down, for several centuries at least, it is also the case that changing cultures and technologies have even in the last ten years accelerated the trend.
The growing refusal of followers to defer literally and/or metaphorically to their putative leaders, their putative superiors, is obvious in the classroom, in the community, in the streets, in the arts, in the media, in corridors of power wherever they are, including, under certain circumstances, in the workplace. Increasingly leaders are beleaguered; increasingly followers, others, are emboldened. Participatory democracy is now everywhere in evidence; everywhere we weigh in, express our preferences, and register our opinions. Power the while has become distributed, disseminated, and diffused, rather like information itself. No sector in society is exempt from follower contempt for leaders; no sector in American society is exempt from followers, others, trying to take leaders down. This is not to say that followers have used their newfound clout to great effect. In fact, in something of a paradox, followers themselves by and large have been disjointed and disorganized.
This chapter is not about the American context, but about the global context within which the US is situated. No surprise: what is happening at the national level is being mirrored at the international level. The world no longer is bi- polar or uni- polar. Rather it is multi-polar, power being diffused among nations, even small ones laying claim now to having a voice, while the larger and more obviously powerful ones are unable to call the shots. Not so long ago America was perceived not only at home but abroad as being invulnerable and impermeable. Now the U. S. is one among a number of nations reluctant to get out front, hesitant to take the lead in any area of global endeavor in any meaningful or enduring way. Hard Times, in other words, for American leaders not only at home, but also abroad.