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Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Barbara Kellerman – the Founding Executive Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, and a member of the Kennedy School faculty for over twenty years.

A world-leading authority on the subject of leadership, Barbara has held professorships at Fordham, Tufts, Fairleigh Dickinson, George Washington, Uppsala, Dartmouth, and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and she is the cofounder of the International Leadership Association (ILA).

Having received the Wilbur M. McFeeley award by the National Management Association for her pioneering work on leadership and followership, as well as the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Leadership Association, Barbara has spoken to audiences all around the world, and has appeared on media outlets including CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, Reuters, and the BBC.

Alongside articles for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Harvard Business Review, Barbara has authored many books including Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence (2010);  Professionalizing Leadership (2018), and Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy (co-authored with Todd Pittinsky). Her new book, The EnablersHow Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America, is now out.

Recorded on 19th January 2021.


Nathalie: Barbara, I’m going to start by asking you quite a broad question, which I invite all my guests to answer. And that’s given the current strange and extraordinary point we’re in history at right now, what do you think is happening in the global human psyche from your perspective?

Barbara: Okay. So, I’m actually going to, in some ways, accept the question, and then other ways reject it.

Nathalie: Okay.

Barbara: I accept and reject. What I mean is that I do think the question is correct, and that there probably is such a thing as a zeitgeist, as the Germans say, meaning particular moment in time that is universally shared. At the same time, I am very big on context, on the importance of context. So, I would never presume that my particular context and how I’m interpreting the human psyche, in, for example, the northeastern part of the United States as an academic, is analogous to, or even vaguely similar to the way the human psyche might be interpreted by an agricultural worker in Vietnam. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the conception of global psyche, I think was your phrase, but I do think so much of it is particular. Again, there are certain trends and timelines that are universally shared, but I think they’re probably, in many ways, less important than the specifics of context. So, I’m a little bit reluctant to talk about global psyche. Although again, I think one could break that down into more useful parts.

Nathalie: That’s a very thoughtful answer, and I haven’t considered it quite to that level of granularity, so I thank you for that. So, maybe then let’s move into something which is a bit more specific, in terms of territory. And as of this moment, I believe you’ve written and edited around 17 books exploring the different facets, and qualities, and dynamics of leadership. And I know that your new book, The Enablers–How Team Trump Flunked the Pandemic and Failed America, is actually coming out this year. Is that correct?

Barbara: Yes. It’s coming out, I think in, we’re talking in January. I have a feeling it’ll be out in six or eight months. Very slow, but it’s done, and it’s written, and it takes a long time, but it will be in 2021. Yes.

Nathalie: Well, I’m looking forward to reading that. And one of the questions I want to ask is about one of your previous books. It explores the aspects of leadership that you’ve written about, in particular, this concept of followership, which I found very intriguing. And in your book, Followership: How Followers are Creating Change and Changing Leaders, you talked about how followers are coming to play increasingly vital roles. And I know that this book came out, I think it was in 2008, and a lot in that time has evolved in the world of business, whether it’s our widespread use of technology, or the groundswell in cultural movements, including Me Too and Black Lives Matter. So, I’m curious to ask, firstly, what followership means to you, and secondly, whether you think that people with less authority, power, and influence, are becoming more consequential.

Barbara: Okay. Well, that’s a very big question and I hope you don’t mind if I give you a slightly longer than usual answer.

Nathalie: Please.

Barbara: If I’m talking too long, you can stop me. So, yes, I started off, I have written very many books and articles by now, and I started off, like most leadership types, focusing primarily on the leader. And beginning with a book I wrote, actually, even earlier than followership, this book is called Bad Leadership, and it came out in 2004. It occurred to me, or I should say it dawned on me, that to talk about bad leaders without simultaneously talking about bad followers was absolutely impossible. That’s when I started to develop my concept, which I use today, which I formulated only about a decade later, but where it occurred to me that the correct way of looking at leadership was not through the lens of a single person, but as an equilateral triangle, with three parts that are equally important.

One is the leader, two are the followers, and third, as I just referenced, is the context. So, every time I now write about leadership, which is all the time, because I blog all the time in addition to my books and articles, I am talking, or implicitly talking about leaders, followers, and contexts, again, ascribing to each of them equal importance. Not to say the leader is unimportant, rather it is to say that followers and contexts, plural, are equally important. Now having made that point, again, in Bad Leadership it dawned on me the followers are as important to bad leadership, that is bad followers, as are bad leaders. So, a few years later, I did write a book called Followership. I would say to your question, another book of mine, again, my life is pockmarked by books, or checkered by books. This one came out in 2012 and it is titled The End of Leadership.

And it is in that book that I start to tackle the issue about what you specifically asked, if not explicitly, then implicitly, which is are relations between leaders and followers changing in ways that has significance for anybody who wants to be a good leader, or for that matter, a good follower? By the way, I should add, Nathalie, that every word out of my mouth applies cross-sectorally and trans-nationally. I am a political scientist by training, but I long ago stopped writing, and thinking, and teaching about political leaders, per se, or for that matter, of course, business leaders, per se, or nonprofit, or educational, or media, or whatever leaders, every word out of my mouth or every word that I put to paper, so to speak, is across the board. It applies across the board.

So, yes, relations between leaders and followers are changing. And as I indicated in the book, The End of Leadership, they’re changing for two primary reasons, both of which you touched on already. One is technology and the other is changes in the culture. But I would also like to put that in an historical context – they have been changing for hundreds and even thousands of years. So, if we look at conceptions of leadership that are ancient, let’s say Confucius and Lao-Tze, say a Plato or Aristotle, they are one way. If we look at Machiavelli, it’s another way. If we look at Lenin, it’s another way. If we look at what has happened from the ground up, and I’m talking the Nelson Mandelas, the Martin Luther Kings, the Betty Friedans of the world, we are looking at another groundswell of pushing from the bottom up, to change relations between leaders and followers, accentuated in the west, I might add, by the ideas of the enlightenment, which has to do with the rights of the governed, not just the governors. So, yes, they have been changing and they are continuing to change.

And this has an impact on the capacity to govern, again, whether business or politics, and liberal democracies. And it also has an impact on the increasingly large numbers of autocracies. I’m talking to you in 2021. Anybody who knows the Freedom House listings will know that over the last decade, the number of democracies has declined, while the number of autocracies has increased. And this relates, again, back to your question of changes in relations between leaders and followers, and yes, followers are getting much more demanding than they used to be. By the way, how we define followers is a separate conversation, maybe a separate question. Much more demanding than they used to be, which is why governance in liberal democracies is much harder than it was, and why leaders in autocracies are more autocratic now than they were five and 10 years ago.

Nathalie: That’s so fascinating.

Barbara: Well, I did warn you, this was going to be a long answer. Sorry.

Nathalie: It gives such a lovely arc of context in terms of historical context, and then also you touched on some of the cultural contexts that influence how we conceive of leadership. I’m also curious about, perhaps, focusing on the west, which is where I have more experience, in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk, I guess, both within business and in the media, of a so-called death of heroic leadership. So, this industrial era model, in which those in positions of authority exert unidirectional power over the people that report to them. And so, I’m thinking with the pandemic, the ways in which it’s revealed a lot of fault lines between nations that are led by heroic leaders. And there’s a difference between those and the countries that maybe took a more collaborative approach, notably many led by women. What lessons do you think we can learn from, perhaps, this more collaborative, relational approach? How might you even begin to describe the ways in which these collaborative approaches work?

Barbara: So, I’m hoping I understand your question. I’ll answer it briefly as best I can, and if I have misunderstood it in any way, I trust you’ll tell me.

Nathalie: Thank you.

Barbara: So, I would say for at least 20 years, to take an arbitrary figure, let’s say a couple of decades, there has been a shift in the leadership literature to the more collaborative model that you are alluding to. We have seen this particularly in the world of business leadership, where the notion of flattened hierarchy, for example, or empowerment, or participation, where those ideas have taken root in a way that they had not previously. Now, that raises the question of, is there a gap between the ideology of leadership that, what is considered good leadership, as in collaborative leadership, and the practice of leadership? It is certainly true that all the trends that I’ve alluded to earlier, meaning weaker leaders and stronger followers, are in many ways evident in the corporate sector, that is in the business sector.

So, for example, CEOs have, in general, much shorter tenures than they used to. They find it harder to lead in the sense that a generation or two ago, certainly two generations ago, a CEO could simply say, “Do this,” or “Do that,” and now it’s not nearly so simple. They have, in general, more attentive boards of advisors that are not simply in their hip pocket. They have multiple constituencies that are screaming and yelling at them all the time, whether it’s the press, or the public, or their customers, or their clients, or their supply chain sources. So, it’s a far more complex environment, obviously, than it used to be, giving less leeway to leaders, even the top leaders, to do what they want, when they want. Now, having said all that, I think there’s a gap between the ideology of collaborative leadership and what we sometimes think of as the demise, as I think your question applied, of heroic leadership.

I will simply say, and I’ll cut to the chase on this one, that I do think there is something to the demise of the hero leader. I don’t even like the word hero because it implies a heroic figure, which I think is not what we’re talking about. We’re talking simply about a dominant figure. And I will say to you what I’ve written about, which is that Donald Trump has reminded Americans, and indeed the world, that the dominant leader is not dead. The degree to which Americans have been obsessed with the single man, I might add for good reason, and the degree to which he was able to enlist a cadre of wildly dedicated followers, was unimaginable four or five years ago. So, before we put to bed the idea of the great leader, the hero leader, the dominant leader, I suggest we take a long look at Donald Trump.

Nathalie: So, speaking to that then, and also to the themes that you address in your book, The Enablers, what do you feel are some of the biggest obstacles that we face in growing, selecting, and supporting competent leaders that are not dominating over the people they purport to lead?

Barbara: Well, one of the, oh, my God, don’t get me started. Okay. One of the astonishing things about Donald Trump was the original sit, which is that Americans elected to the nation’s highest office. Yes, I know Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes, but we have this weird system, the Electoral College, where Donald Trump was elected to the nation’s highest office without any experience, and without any expertise whatsoever. He’d never governed. He’d never served in the military. He’d had no experience of politics. He was a New York City real estate developer, as the world knows. And yet, we saw fit to elect him to the nation’s highest office. So, Nathalie, I’m sorry to do this to you, but to your question, I’m going to come up with yet another book of mine. This one is an Oxford University Press book that came out two years ago, or two and a half years ago, in 2018.

Barbara: This one is called Professionalizing Leadership. And I think the answer to your question lies in that book, meaning we somehow think that it’s okay to elect to the nation’s highest office, and I have to say there are some parallels in other parts of the world, although Americans may be the worst at this, somebody who is completely and absolutely in every way not equipped to be president of the United States. Why do we do this? Because we think of leadership as something one can do without proper education. It is not, in any part of the world, a profession the way is, for example, medicine, and law, and teaching, and engineering. It’s not even like cutting hair or driving a truck, meaning we don’t have any proper education. We don’t have any proper training. It is haphazard. It is done differently in different places. The leadership industry, as I refer to it, which is about a half a century old, has, in my view, failed miserably to begin even to professionalize leadership.

It implies, “If you take my course, or you take my workshop, or you take my seminar, you too can lead.” Again, unlike any of the vocations, God knows, unlike any of the professions, we treat leadership as something casual, as opposed to something deadly serious. Until we take leadership seriously, and educate, and train, and develop leaders appropriately across the board, so long will it be that followers will have no sense, because we don’t educate followers. We don’t educate voters, let’s say. We don’t educate employees, workers, that they have a right to expect and to demand leaders who are extremely well equipped to do what they are being paid to do, which is wisely, reasonably wisely, and reasonably well, actually, to lead.

Nathalie: I think given, especially now, given all of the concurrent crises we face, whether it’s the climate breakdown and biodiversity loss, or the social inequality and political instability we’re seeing in so many parts of the world, there are more challenges than ever right now in the ways in which we choose to lead. I wonder, from your perspective, what you feel are those qualities that are most useful and important for our leaders to equip themselves with, in order to lead successfully at this moment in time?

Barbara: Well, again, it depends on which leaders we’re talking about. I feel, I pay attention to leadership around the world, as I’ve implied. My original masters is in Russian studies, but of course I’m an American, and so I pay the most attention to this particular climate. I think we haven’t really come to grips with how to settle, or even begin to address, precisely the problems that you mentioned. Climate change is now, of course, extremely high. Climate emergency is what some people are referring to it as, properly so, probably. We haven’t any conception of how really to do this, and we all know in our heads, intellectually, that to change the world as it needs to be changed in order to address the climate emergency will require a level of collaboration among nations, between nations, and among sectors, between sectors, that is unprecedented.

Barbara: It can’t be just government. It’s got to be business. It can’t be just the United States. It’s got to be China and India. It seems almost insurmountable at this point. One more comment, since your work is primarily directed at the private sector, I have been struck and I will speak for the United States, how in the last month or so, certainly since the storming of the capital on January 6th, business leaders have suddenly come out of the woodwork to tell us how anti-Trump they are. However, the business community has very largely been very silent for four years as the calamity of the Trump presidency, particularly in 2020, the pandemic year, has been glaringly evident. So, until we have corporate leaders with a larger sense of the social responsibility to which they are increasingly paying lip service, with a deeper and more profound commitment to that, I fear we will be stuck because we need leaders in every sector in order to even begin to address the kinds of challenges to which you just alluded.

Nathalie: This is an impossible question, but I’m curious to hear what your answer may be. If you had to choose one or two qualities that you felt were absolutely key to the long term success and resilience of a leader, within a business, within any institution, whether it’s government or within the educational system, what quality or qualities would those be?

Barbara: Well, you’re right, it’s not a question I generally gravitate to, because as I tell my students, and as you will deduce from what I said earlier, since I consider context so important, the leader of a cancer hospital will almost certainly require qualities different from the leader of a small municipality in China. So, it’s not as if qualities are easily transferable from one context to the other. So, I could give you a platitudinous answer, which particularly in the wake of the big liar that is Donald Trump, people are now going, “Oh, we need truth-tellers. We need truth-tellers,” which, of course, is true. We need people with, we need leaders with integrity and honesty. On the other hand, we all know anybody with a modicum of sophistication know that even the greatest leaders lie some of the time, and they feel it’s necessary, and it probably is necessary for a leader to lie some of the time.

So, even that blanket statement seems, to me, implausible. I would simply say that in order to decide, there are, some trends saying, “We want a leader who is a good communicator.” Again, we can come up with a list of qualities that are repeated over and over again, in terms of what makes a good leader. And they’re applicable, I’m not saying they’re not, I’m just saying that to really answer that question closely and carefully would require a look at the context within which the leader is operating. What is the nature of the context? What are the tasks at hand? What is the nature of the followers? And then you can come up with a solid and reliable answer appropriate to that particular situation, at that particular moment in time.

Nathalie: So, triangulating the answer through those three pillars that you mentioned earlier?

Barbara: Yes. Always it’s the three pillars. I’m sorry to be tedious and redundant. But again, the fixation on the leader is, in my view, misplaced. The leader depends on, okay, what’s the problem here that needs to be addressed? Maybe there’s no problem. Maybe there’s multiple problems. Let’s look at, Mary Berra of General Motors has a certain set of tasks in 2021 that were inconceivable to her when she first came into office as a CEO. She’s all into EVs now, electric vehicles. Who would have thought, until very recently, that’s where General Motors is determined to go? But in the wake of the success of Tesla in the last 12 months, the remarkable market success of Elon Musk, she’s looking over her shoulder and going, “Hmm, maybe that’s the direction in which we should head.”

But she couldn’t have known that, at least not to the degree even just a few short years ago. In other words, what’s important when I say context is not just the nature of the organization, or the community, or the country, but also the moment in time. In other words, leadership in 2021 is going to be different from leadership even a year ago, pre-pandemic. So, times change, things change, pay attention to the context, which includes the moment in time.

Nathalie: That’s brilliant. With all of these questions that I’m sending over to you, and I imagine you get asked a lot of these, is there a question that you wish people would ask you, but they haven’t yet?

Barbara: Well, I think the thing that frustrates me the most, since I’ve been in this field for several decades, is that we are doing, as I said earlier, Nathalie, and now I’m repeating myself, but if you’re asking me what bothers me, it’s not exactly your question, but I wonder why leadership, why people who work in the field of leadership have been so resistant to doing the collaborative work that should be done, so that learning how to lead wisely and well can be uniform, and sophisticated, and demanding in a way that it generally is not. At this point in time, everybody does their own thing in the leadership universe. And there is nearly, again, it’s just unlike medicine and law, where at one point physicians decided they needed to get serious, that there was a core curriculum, that there were certain standards, certain measurements of what constitutes excellence, certain credentialing that was apt.

You can’t just call yourself a doctor, if you decide you’re good at curing people. You need to get an education and have a license. On the other hand, you can call yourself a leader, as Donald Trump did, and get elected the president of the United States without any qualifications whatsoever, which is not his fault. And it’s not the fault of the American people. I would say it’s the fault of people in our line of work, who are not putting in the necessary labor to elevate leadership learning to a level higher than it is and has been for the last 40, 50 years.

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