We have a leadership bubble. It might seem invisible, but bubbles usually are. What’s more, a surplus of leadership might seem counterintuitive in a highly networked, diffuse, and uncertain economy. But trends in business—and in culture and politics, too—all seem to gravitating toward a deeper entrenchment of the executive. And in a culture increasingly premised more and more on a horizontalized, software “stack” system of organization and workflow, personality-driven leadership is a holdover from a bygone era. The leadership bubble is precarious, top-heavy, and, in its consolidation of authority, increasingly dangerous.
So, how did we get here? How much longer will it last? And what emerging virtues might leaders themselves seek to mitigate it? The answer to a leadership bubble probably involves cultivating a healthy sense of followership.
It helps to think about the genealogy of such a bubble. The leadership bubble is part of a larger trend of consolidation, a monopoly of personality, taking place both in and outside of the private sector. It’s something that has been happening for decades, but American life in general has rapidly “executivized” in recent years with the ascendence of superstar CEOs and tech culture in general. Other avenues of life are full of signs, too: cultural life is dominated more and more by big budget film franchises, a handful of superstar musicians (and to an even greater degree—hit-making Scandinavian producers). And even if American politics seem to be at a partisan impasse, political reality favors the Executive branch in a way not seen since perhaps the New Deal.
A pervasive loss of faith overall in institutions (which may have leaders, but certainly don’t live and die by them) may be the reason why we seek strong, leadership-style personalities again. It’s an understandable impulse. Organizations and institutions are fallible, slow-moving, and often calcified places. Bringing in a new executive can offer clarity, the promise of a new beginning—or a return to a mythical past again. We seem to trust individuals, especially the newer breed of highly-mediated, highly-photographed CEO, before we trust institutions. That institutions, slow and calcified as they are, might, for these precise reasons, be more resilient to challenges and corruption, doesn’t seem to occur to us yet.
Social scientists, business culture, and management theorists probably deserve some of the blame, too. Leadership, broadly and (often imprecisely) defined is basically a cottage industry within MBA programs, and even cut-throat high schools and colleges today universally promise to prepare the “leaders of tomorrow.” Culture puts a premium on leadership virtues like persuasion, decisiveness, ambition. All of this creates a pressure cooker environment, rewards leadership for its own sake, without much attention to character, and squeezes out and discredits employees with team-based values or skillsets.
Recognizable, personality-driven leadership also creates a 1:1 associative effect between a firm and its CEO. For every focus grouped Mark Zuckerberg, there is a “renegade” Travis Kalanick. His belated departure, and the toxic workplace environment he left behind, are a great example of just how willing shareholders and management are to accept destructive behavior in their leader, so long as the man at the top generates headlines and attention, fights regulators, and insists on the revolutionary nature of their product.
Not all leaders are aggressive narcissists, of course. But even the best among them could stand to familiarize themselves with some of the principles behind effective followership. Followership emerged out of a cultural fixation on leadership and management ushered in by MBAs, conference culture, and the consulting wave of the last twenty or so years—what leadership scholar Barbara Kellerman has called “the Leadership Industry.”
Scholars like Kellerman studying followership aren’t just getting points for just being counterintuitive. A closer attention to followership fits quite well with a more collaborative, team-based workplace. Management scholars and consultants Marc and Samantha Hurwitz described the new workplace this way, “Expertise is dispersed and not ‘owned’ by an omniscient leader, the speed of change is too fast for it to be pushed down to subordinates…”
Followership prizes mission above ambition, generates its own natural sovereignty, and ultimately fosters the kind of well-balanced, diversified workplace that will attract people truly interested in building something.
The first myth to dispel about followership might be the most pervasive. We still do seem to equate “followership” with a kind of blind, cult-like loyalty. To follow is to be sheeplike, dronelike, and what’s more, being a follower means sacrificing something deeper about yourself as an autonomous human being.
The truth is, of course, that we all follow along constantly, whether we recognize it or not. Our culture and society operates mainly on the basis of our shared cooperation. Acceptance of rules and authority, even when they are inconvenient or arbitrary, generates broad efficiencies. That broader, public acceptance is one thing a Silicon Valley-style ethos of “move fast and break things” has, well, disrupted. Business schools are flooded with students who seek to be entrepreneurs and leaders, but don’t have in mind a great idea for a product or a social problem they’d like to address. It’s harder to teach people to be followers because it’s not an especially fun lesson to learn. But neither is it a difficult one. It’s important to remember that a firm (like any other social organization) functions through hard work. That includes the work of a leader.
Robert Kelley, in an influential paper on followership, put it this way, “followership dominates our lives and organizations, but not our thinking, because our preoccupation with leadership keeps us from considering the nature and the importance of the follower.” In other words, followership is something we perform, whether we realize it consciously or not.
Effective leaders also derive their legitimacy from their employees. Nobody wants to be a clothesless emperor. And anyone in a leadership position with a modicum of social awareness knows the discomfort of being out of favor among the rest of the office. Part of manifesting followership is recognizing when one has (or doesn’t have) followers at all. Whether your authority comes from your actions and behavior or simply the title on your office.
Effective followers possess intentionality, too. They make a conscious decision to follow a leader or directive. It’s a formulation Senator Ben Sasse recently described as “big cause-low ego” hires. Having a sense of cause, and mission, is central to being a good follower. That shouldn’t stop at the top of the org chart.
A Tale of Two Executives
The tech sector definitely experienced an overblown leadership glut in its ascendance. But it was personalities like Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates at Microsoft (and not Steve Jobs at Apple) who embraced a followership ethos. Ballmer, in his own weird way, put raw emotion and enthusiasm for the company culture front and center. During his tenure, you could tell that he authentically loved Microsoft and his employees.
Compare Ballmer’s performances to the average Apple event during the Jobs era. If Ballmer “radiated” enthusiasm outward, Jobs absorbed it like blacktop. His affect was always cool, reserved, “Zen-like,” if you’re feeling generous (holier-than-thou if you’re not).
According to Walter Isaacson’s biography, Jobs’ public image meant that he was often tyrannical, obsessive, and egomaniacal outside of the spotlight and in his personal life. Ultimately this might have simply been the way a man like Steve Jobs was wired, but there’s reason to believe that manifesting a prophet-like persona in one’s role as leader wouldn’t allow a person to channel their enthusiasm or belief in the product back into their work. It seems more important than anything that executives and leaders “break character,” not be too “cool for school,” and sometimes get a bit sweaty and enthusiastic.
Barbara Kellerman sees the tech sector’s leadership worship as diminishing, however. “Once the ‘founding fathers’ are gone [leader worship] will diminish. And their status is also likely to be clipped if—and when—antitrust legislation kicks in.”
Our tendency to seek and amplify tech leadership also has to do with a gap between public and industry knowledge. The Hurwitzs noted that tech work is often obscure to the general public, who, after all, only interact with a finalized, App Store-ready version of their product. People like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs are cultural avatars more than they are executives. They provide meaning and narrative to a process that is messy, interrupted, and constantly iterating. Tech executives are “rarely the most popular kid in school, or the natural leader in a crowd,” they told me. So when they do reach a level of recognizability, “they’re ripe for mythologizing.”
Even the most principled free marketeers will tell you that monopoly is bad for markets. Monopolies discourage competition, erode democracy, and concentrate the rewards among victors. The same could be said for the monopoly of personality. There are plenty of arguments that our leadership bubble is bad for leaders themselves. It’s not just lonely at the top—it’s precarious up there, too! Heavy executivization discourages risk, makes company culture less creative, top-heavy, and lays blame or credit exclusively on a single personality. There aren’t many people, attention-seeking Kalanicks included, who can truly handle that kind of responsibility.
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