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POSTED AT 11:33 AM ET, 06/18/2009

New Wine in New Bottles: Iran's Lessons on Followership

Hate to say "I told you so." (Not really.) But . . . I told you so. In my most recent book, "Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders," I wrote that as a result of two changes, one recent and the other even more recent, 21st century leaders are losing power and influence while followers are gaining more.

First, the various rights revolutions that climaxed in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to an unprecedented decline in respect for authority. As Todd Gitlin, an expert on that period, writes, "Today, on every political and cultural front, the question is not whether to question authority but which authority to question." While this is not a syndrome altogether new -- in the 19th century De Tocqueville wrote that Americans had a "general distaste for accepting any man's word as proof of anything" -- the anti-authority movements of the '60s and '70s were as powerful and enduring as they were contagious.

The second change to affect relations between leaders and led, in ways we only now are beginning to appreciate, is the advent of new technologies. In "Followership" I noted that the Internet in particular had changed forever "the dynamic between those who hold positions of power and those who do not." The evidence, I added, was everywhere: in medicine, where once almighty physicians are now challenged at every turn (get your second opinion, and for that matter your third, fourth, and fifth online); in higher education, where professors, previously remote, must now make themselves available, if only by email, 24/7; in business, where shareholder activists have learned to connect, one to another, and to slowly but certainly challenge management in ways previously unaccustomed; and obviously in government.

In recent years political leaders from China to Finland have been forced to fend off bloggers and e-mailers, text messengers, cell-phone users and now Twitterers, all of whom are emboldened by their (relatively) newfound claim to ever-increasing equity and strengthened by their access to ever-more-sophisticated technology. As Barack Obama's campaign for the White House clearly demonstrated, tech-savvy political aspirants now use the web to come nearly out of nowhere and defeat their more conventional opposition. In response to an outpouring of online expressions of sympathy, this week a Chinese court freed a woman who had allegedly killed a government official. This dynamic is not new. With millions of internet users, China has become a hotbed of online activism and resistance in recent years. Chinese officials have done what they can to ward off this new form of citizen participation, attempting to suppress the Internet and control and even punish those who use it to challenge government authority.

But such efforts, as Iran's leadership cadre is only now beginning to discover, are in vain. Public officials can tamp down online activity, but hacktivists and activists are generally one step ahead. It likely would take a brutal government crackdown to stop altogether online activity of the sort engaged in nearly everywhere by those without power, authority, and influence against those with.

Iran, then, is only the latest case in point. For the first time, Twitter, in good part because of the brevity it demands, has proven remarkably effective as a means of communication, both within Iran and without. But Twitter is no more than new wine in a newish bottle: this year's version of the online technology that for some years now has been changing the way the world works.

We have been fixated on Iran in recent days because it is so important a country, because the cast of characters is so compelling, and because the short-term outcome remains uncertain. But the story is far larger than this single situation suggests. Underlying Iran's power dynamic is a long-term shift worldwide, one in which leaders of every stripe have less clout than they did before and their followers more. Hard on the heels of the changing culture are the changes in technology. While the one without the other would not have amounted to much, together they are creating a sea change in the human condition.

This is not to say that leaders don't matter any more. They do. But they are diminished by their followers -- the people, if you will -- in ways new and different. It's why the experts (policy experts, leadership experts), as well as leaders and managers, better get with the program. Those who obsess about those at the top (think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), at the expense of those in the middle and at the bottom (think Iranian protesters), will find they are not merely misguided but mistaken.

BY Barbara Kellerman | Permalink | Comments (1)        
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POSTED AT 2:16 PM ET, 02/12/2009

American Idol Contestant, Timothy Geithner

The American people have got in the habit of shooting a man down for one gig gone awry. As Timothy Geithner discovered on Tuesday, his one bad turn was all it took for us to judge him so weak a performer that it will be difficult, maybe impossible, for him to recover.

Geithner came on the scene with some baggage - there was that unpaid tax bill and a stint as president of the Federal Reserve that now seems less than stellar. Still the question arises: Why do we rush to judgment of a man and matter of such overweening importance? From where stems this sense of our entitlement?

Blame it on the popular culture, which has affected, or maybe infected, the political culture. I call it "the American Idolization" of American life, for it is the Fox TV show American Idol and its multiple progeny that have taught us to dispose of people after what sometimes is no fault more grievous than a single bad performance.

Television still has a powerful hold on America's national consciousness. In a new-media world it's the one old-media business that has proved remarkably resilient. "American Idol," in turn, has been a top television show or even the top television show for eight years. Moreover it has birthed other shows, Dancing With the Stars, for example, which is also based on the proposition that while experts can and do weigh in, they have no more of a right to determine the outcome than do we. In fact, we finally decide, we the viewing public, who goes to the next round, who goes home, and who is the winner. We are encouraged at every turn to voice our vote immediately, by phoning in, text messaging, or going online.

Shows like American Idol and Dancing with the Stars are major fixtures of mass entertainment. Fully 44 percent of the American people watched "American" at least once, and in 2006 one in ten Americans took the time and trouble to vote their Idol preference. Similarly, Dancing has been a huge hit for ABC, while countless other television shows follow suit by in some way inviting viewers to participate in the proceedings. Even Oprah, who used to rely nearly entirely on in-studio guests, now Skypes regularly, in order to bring ordinary people into the conversation.

Most of this democratization of popular culture is to the good. It involves us in mass entertainment in ways previously unthinkable and entirely defensible. But when it spills into the political culture different rules must apply. The mob mentality that prevailed on Tuesday - in an instant Geithner morphed into a national whipping boy - was the result of our deciding on the spot that he just couldn't cut it.

But Geithner was not up for a People's Choice Award. Rather his appearances earlier this week were about economic policy during a time of crisis. The speed with which we tore him down demeaned a man of consequence who deserved to be treated accordingly. To diminish him, in particular so early in the game, is to diminish ourselves.

BY Barbara Kellerman | Permalink | Comments (4)        
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POSTED AT 3:15 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Popes, Presidents and Public Opinion

When will they learn? Leaders today are vulnerable, as never before, to pressures from once-mute followers who now have the cultural temerity and technological capacity to protest loud and clear.

President Barack Obama, for example, seems not to have understood that when you transition from campaigning to governing you are accountable to countless constituents, large numbers of whom are not ardent fans. He failed to appreciate that people both in and out of government would not simply accept, with nary a note of dissent, a string of appointees with tax problems. As a result he felt forced, just days after taking office, publicly to admit, "I screwed up." Apart from the indignity of the phrase, there was the indignity of a man who had morphed nearly overnight from riding high to eating humble pie.

Political leaders are not the only ones who still don't get it. The nation's business leaders have been equally obtuse, slow to recognize the present power of public outrage. While some of the most glaring examples of corporate indulgence are being curbed or canceled - Goldman Sachs called off its big Miami hedge fund conference, Morgan Stanley eliminated trips to Monte Carlo and the Bahamas, and Bank of America announced three of its aircraft were up for sale - other extravagances continue. For example, some of the nation's smaller banks are continuing to party on, their leaders and managers oblivious to the changing times. Bank of the Ozarks in Arkansas and International Bancshares of Texas are only two of those recently cited for having taken taxpayer money while their chief executives continue to live high on the hog.

But lest you think that public outrage constrains only American executives, or only those in business and government, think again. The balance of power between leaders and followers has shifted so dramatically that even Pope Benedict XVI recently concluded he had no choice but to backtrack. In January the pope revoked the excommunication of four bishops, including one who publicly denied the Holocaust happened.

While the Vatican said in a statement the bishop's comments were "unknown to the Holy Father at the time he revoked the excommunication," the pope's edict remained in place until it became clear that this was fast becoming a public relations disaster. To all appearances, the pope's just issued insistence that the bishop recant his statements denying the Holocaust was less of his own volition than it was his response to protests worldwide threatening to undermine both him and his church.

Leading wisely and well was never easy - and it is harder now than it was. But it is more difficult still for leaders unable or unwilling to see that in the 21st century they have less power and influence - and their putative followers have more.

BY Barbara Kellerman | Permalink | Comments (19)        
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POSTED AT 2:47 PM ET, 02/ 6/2009

Bottom's Up: Why Followers Matter

Leaders matter. But -- Obama-mania notwithstanding -- they don't matter as much as we think. Moreover they matter less now than they ever did before. Our fixation on leaders is not only misguided, it's downright mistaken. Leader-centrism confuses or denies the complexities of history, which include a cast of characters whom I call followers.

Followers are subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors. Though we associate the word "follower" with weakness, timorousness, and even failure - every one wants to be a leader, no one wants to be a follower - in fact leaders must, by definition, have at least one follower. And just as we tend to overestimate the power of leaders, so we usually underestimate the power of followers.

Consider the war in Gaza. In times past, decisions in this part of the world were made by leaders -- by kings, presidents, and prime ministers from the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S., as well as the heads of the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations. But now the collective capacity of these leaders to call the shots is diminished. They are hemmed in on all sides not only by each other, but also by large numbers of followers turned protesters, who in large numbers of places demand to be heard.

Overwhelmingly these protesters in the Middle East are against Israel and for Hamas (or, more broadly, for the Palestinians), and in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia, they are taking on those ostensibly in charge, obliging them to be less conciliatory and more militant. While the situation particularly constrains Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, the problem is widespread across the region, to the point where ordinary people, fueled by anger against Israel, limit the policy options of their leaders.

Nor is public outrage confined to countries most directly affected. Twenty thousand people recently protested in London, another 20,000 across Germany, 30,000 in Paris, thousands more in places such as Oslo and Stockholm, not to speak of the near three quarters of a million who took to the street in Istanbul. This is not to say the mob rules, but to point out that people without obvious sources of power, authority or influence threaten their leaders.

The arc of human history has in fact favored followers over leaders, most strikingly during the Enlightenment, when democratic theory gradually advanced, and again after the American and French Revolutions, with the sudden advent of democratic practice in the form of the overthrow of rulers by the ruled. Now, in the 21st century, for a range of reasons that include changes in culture and technology, and generational shifts as well, followers are becoming stronger and leaders weaker.

Each week this blog will explore and expose the power of followers. Leaders will not of course be excluded from the discussion. But nor will they take center stage. They will be obliged to do here what they do in real life -- share the spotlight with those who in theory, but not necessarily in practice, are much less powerful than they.

Read and comment on Barbara Kellerman's previous Followership posts:

Madoff's followers show us why leaders must build cultures of skepticism.

Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe leads because we all follow.

BY Barbara Kellerman | Permalink | Comments (0)        
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