Over the last 75 years, confidence in American institutions has waxed and waned. It was low during the 1930′s, during the years of the Great Depression, but after that things improved. The year 1965 was a high point, the great majority of the American people giving consistently positive evaluations of American institutions nearly across the board.

Since then, things have gone more or less steadily downhill. Our confidence in American institutions has continued to decline, even, or especially, during the last several decades. The numbers are grim, the long term trend being relentlessly down, with new lows recorded only recently for Americans’ confidence in schools, churches, banks and television news.

Media have been especially hard hit. Not only have old media had to contend with the decline in confidence, they have had to contend with new media, with online media, which have threatened their predecessors to the point of near extinction.

All this came inevitably to mind yesterday, when the news came out that one of the most venerable of old media institutions, the Washington Post, was sold to one of the most original of new media moguls, Jeff Bezos. Of the media transitions concluded only recently—including the sale of the Boston Globe to John Henry, principal owner of the Boston Red Sox—the sale of the Post was the most emblematic. Though Post stalwarts such as iconic journalist Bob Woodward put their best faces forward—saying how great it all was, that someone as perfectly wonderful as Bezos was now in a position to make the decisions—the fact of the matter is there was sadness that so great a paper as the Post had hemorrhaged so much cash and so much circulation it could not continue.

To most rules there is an exception—in this case it is the New York Times. It is impossible to exaggerate each of the following: 1) how singularly superb remains the paper of record; 2) how singular sturdy remains the paper of record (it has stemmed the tide sweeping away other media family dynasties); and 3) how singularly nimble remains the paper of record (it has adapted to the changing times in spite of its own significant losses). It was, in fact, the New York Times Company that sold the Globe to Henry, having clearly concluded it should shed whatever was extraneous to concentrate on its core mission—a single publication to crush the competition.

For those of us old enough to remember a time when Americans were less cynical and not so jaded, it’s a relief that one of the greatest of all American institutions endures. The Times carries now as it did then “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” And it carries now, as it did not then, “All the News That’s Fit to Click.” The paper remains as it has for well over a century in the Ochs/Sulzberger family, which clearly considers the paper a national trust. Following industry trends, the Times’ weekday circulation has fallen. But, bucking industry trends, its website has emerged as America’s most successful. Each month it receives upwards of 30 million unique visitors—a feat in a media environment that is nothing if not hostile. And an exception in an institutional environment that is nothing if not depressing.

This column was originally published on BarbaraKellerman.com on August 6, 2013.

My strong interest in followership—as opposed to only in leadership—began about ten years ago. I was writing my book Bad Leadership, when it became evident that there were no bad leaders without bad followers. The former simply did not, could not, function without the support of the latter. Since then, I have nearly never talked about leadership without, simultaneously, referencing followership.

Only in the last few years though did something else become apparent: leaders are getting weaker and followers stronger. Not a day goes by without evidence that testifies to events driven as much from the bottom up as from the top down. It’s not that leaders have become unimportant or irrelevant. But in the 21st century most followers make it hard for most leaders to get so much done. And in the 21st century followers feel empowered and emboldened to a degree that historically is unprecedented. While this phenomenon appears at first glance to be primarily political, it is not. It is evidenced in every sector; and it is evidenced worldwide, in the United States certainly, but equally in places like China, and Brazil, and Bangladesh, in effect, everywhere.

This change in the way the world works is so blatantly obvious, at least to me, it’s a mystery, at least to me, that anyone anywhere can any longer teach leadership without teaching followership. But, there it is. For whatever constellation of reasons the study of leadership remains a bull market, while the study of followership still languishes. Maybe some day this will change. Maybe some day people will realize that the way the world works in the present, as opposed to the way the world worked in the past, mandates we pay attention to those in the middle and at the bottom, as well as to those at the top.

Meantime here is evidence—none more than a week old—of the importance of being a follower.

  • The press was focused on the nine members of the Supreme Court and what they would have to say about gay marriage. But the real story of course—the real story behind this week’s victory for equal rights—was not about the nine but about the many thousands of ordinary Americans who fought the good fight. And it was about the many millions of ordinary Americans who came in the last decade to believe that there was no reason that everyone shouldn't be entitled to the benefits of marriage—save those who were gay. As George Chauncey pointed out in the New York Times (“The Long Road to Marriage Equality”) the marriage movement emerged out of the maelstrom that was the AIDS epidemic (in the 1980s). But it was about more, much more, than legal benefits. Gays and others fought for the right for gays to marry because denial of marriage rights has always been a “powerful symbol of people’s exclusion from full citizenship.”  The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) finally became intolerable, legally, morally, because so many Americans came to believe, along with Justice Anthony Kennedy, that “DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal.” I might add that the woman who sued to have DOMA overturned, the woman who led the charge, Edith Windsor, is a woman now over 80 years old, who no one had previously heard of, a woman who until now was without any apparent power, authority, or influence.
  • Until a few weeks ago Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seemed untouchable, impervious to political problems. In fact, both domestically and internationally Erdogan was one of the few political leaders who was riding high, credited with transforming Turkey into a regional power, and into a model that other countries would do well to emulate. Where else had the mix of Islam and democracy seemed to work so well? But then, seemingly out of the blue, began widespread public protests that convulsed the country. Out of the blue, in other words, there came followers who previously had stayed silent, as in recent years Erdogan became increasingly autocratic, determined to have things his way and to brook no dissent. Like most such protests it began small, a dispute over a park, and then it spread, finally requiring or seeming to hordes of riot police to restore order. As it stands now, Erdogan is back in control, but the price has been high. Some 7,000 protesters and more than a dozen journalists were injured. Five people died, and several remain in critical condition. A witch hunt has begun for so-called provocateurs. Hundreds of demonstrators have been detained, and even jailed for such “crimes” as tending to the wounded. And there have been international consequences as well. Germany, for example, Turkey’s largest trading partner, is now trying to block new talks about its entering the European Union. One could argue that the protests are signs that Turkey is maturing as a democracy. But one could as easily argue that whatever the signs, so long as Erdogan remains in power, so long will democracy be suppressed. As we have seen in Putin’s Russia, fledgling democracy movements are fragile. Even the bravest, most determined followers are vulnerable to leaders who would as soon destroy them.
  • Brazil is a different story. And Brazil is the same story. Brazil is the same in that an apparently small and simple protest, in this case over an increase in bus fares, led out of the blue to complete chaos, to an ostensibly thriving, developing country in the grip of a level of unrest that only a week earlier was all but inconceivable. Hundreds of protesters became thousands, and then tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. Finally a million ordinary Brazilians vented their various frustrations, furious at their leaders for a range of offenses, most of them centering on income inequities, corruption, and spending that was perceived to be excessive on everything (including next year’s World Cup) but basic services. The point is that “all of a sudden, a country that was once viewed as a stellar example of a rising, democratic power found itself upended by an amorphous, leaderless popular uprising with one unifying theme: an angry, and sometimes violent rejection of politics as usual” (New York Times, June 21). What was different about Brazil—different from Turkey—is that Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff quickly did what she could to mollify the masses. To be sure, in week one the authorities tried cracking down. But when that didn’t work, the government changed course. Instead of in any obvious way punishing their followers, Brazil’s leaders tried rewarding them. Rouseff promised improvements in transportation and health services, she insisted that she would spend all of Brazil’s expected revenue from massive new finds of offshore oil on education, and finally she promised to reconfigure the country’s entire political system by convening a constituent assembly that could overhaul both the Congress and campaign-finance methods. How this will all come out in the end is impossible now to say. In any case the difference between what happened in Turkey and what happened in Brazil is palpable, save in one all-important way. Both countries were upturned not by leaders, but by followers.
  • After a building collapse in Bangladesh in April killed well over a thousand garment workers, it became rapidly clear that something big would have to change. In particular, the authorities in Bangladesh were increasingly concerned over the backlash both at home and abroad. At home there were the predictable but nevertheless impassioned protests, masses of ordinary people incensed by the manifest failure of government to regulate factories, workplaces of countless workers. And abroad there was growing disquiet, fear that, for example, Americans would finally be put off by garments that while dirt cheap, were being made by men, women, and children far from home, exploited for their dirt cheap labor. In fact, not only were leaders in Bangladesh worried, so were leaders in the U. S., corporate leaders concerned their goods would no longer sell so well, and, in a worst case scenario, actively be boycotted by consumers who would rather pay a dollar more for a tee shirt than tote a guilty conscience. Therefore, again as a result of pressure from below, it was revealed this week that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Gap, Inc, and other large U.S. retailers were nearing an agreement to establish a $50 million, five-year fund to improve safety conditions in Bangladesh garment factories. (The agreement was contingent on the government in Bangladesh meeting criteria for accountability.) This on the heels of other retailers—in particular dozens of large European companies—who had earlier already adopted a legally binding pact to improve worker safety in Bangladesh. Activists have tried for years to improve factory conditions in Bangladesh, which has grown to one of the world’s largest apparel producers, precisely because of its low costs. But it took another catastrophe—the one in April was by no means the first—to heighten public awareness, especially outside Bangladesh, to the point where followers were seen by leaders as a likely threat.
  • About Wendy Davis you could say that before this week she was already a leader. She was, after all, a Texas state senator. However as such she had precious little of what leaders value: power, authority, or influence. A couple of days ago that changed—likely forever. It was her own doing, her own willingness to speak to power, to stand up to power in the State Capitol in Austin by daring in dramatic fashion to filibuster. Ultimately, though her filibustering was under grueling, one might even say draconian conditions, it lasted more than eleven hours. And it transformed her into a political phenomenon, first on line then in real time she became an overnight star who likely will shine for some time to come. I don’t want to get trapped by word play on this one—a week ago was Senator Davis a leader or a follower? My point is that a week ago scarcely anyone had heard of her outside the state of Texas. My point is that for various cultural and technological reasons she was able to capitalize on what she accomplished in a way that would have been impossible even a decade ago, rocketing from obscurity to fame in the proverbial heartbeat.
  • Is there anything left to say at this time that hasn’t already been said about Edward Snowden? Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old so-called hacker who turned America’s political establishment, especially its security establishment, on its head by leaking? Not really, except to point out that his particular trajectory is a sign of the times. It is a sign of how now a single individual can engage in role reversal—can oblige those we call leaders into following his lead.

This article was originally published on June 28th on BarbaraKellerman.com.

Wednesday, 09 January 2013 00:00

Kellerman: The New York Times

Whoever said that good old-fashioned journalism was dead and gone? Whoever said that in the Internet age newspapers were obsolete? Whoever said that investigative reporting was a thing of the past?

Whoever did, forgot to check with the Executive Editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson.

Under her editorship, investigative reporting has distinguished the New York Times and served as reminder of how much we need great papers. Seems every month someone at the Times crafts another piece of reporting that is hard-nosed and hard won. Take, for example, the series on Wal-Mart in China, or on the business of horseracing, or, as previously mentioned, on Foxconn (see: “The Promise of Good Followership—Apple Ripens”). They each required on the part of the paper a major investment of time and money. Over many months, sources had to be collected and confirmed, and facts had to be checked and rechecked.

In a speech she delivered last June, Abramson reaffirmed the importance of investigative reporting—and warned of a crackdown on those who leak government secrets. Ironically, given his reputation as a liberal democrat, Barack Obama or, at least, members of his administration, have been especially keen to prosecute those who make overt what the White House wants kept covert. Remember what became of Bradley Manning, the soldier charged with aiding and abetting Julian Assange? In her speech, Abramson went so far as to say that “the environment in Washington has never been more hostile to report in.”

All the more reason to applaud the Times for regularly investing in investigative journalism. In order for the relatively powerless to hold to account the relatively powerful, they need to be armed with information that is qualitatively and quantitatively superior to what the Internet is likely to yield.

This post originally appeared on BarbaraKellerman.com on January 4, 2013.

Wednesday, 02 January 2013 00:00

Perils of Bad Followership

It seems to me so apparent that Washington is suffering from a crisis of bad followership—as opposed to bad leadership—I wonder that no one sees it as I do. (Though I do know the reason—we're leader-centric. We're so fixated on leaders we scarcely notice followers.)

Once again the evidence is compelling. In just the last week both Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Barack Obama have again been diminished by followers refusing to follow. The inability of the Congress and the Executive to avert the threat of the fiscal cliff in a judicious and timely manner testifies less to the weaknesses of the speaker and the president, than to the recalcitrance of legislators who simply refuse to compromise, as if compromise was weakness. It's all about the inability of the governing class to go along to get along—to follow someone else's lead when to follow someone else's lead is necessary to the greater good. Put differently, what's happened this month in DC is not so much about individual leaders falling down on the job, as it is about a political cadre that dreads following and so insists on leading or, at least, tries to.

Not incidentally, the same syndrome surfaced as soon as the president started to name his new cabinet. Two of his trial balloons were shot down with a ferocity and alacrity that threw into question the administration's ability to manage its own affairs. Both Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel were the president's preferences, she for Secretary of State, he for Secretary of Defense. Instead of a deliberate approval process, we had, in both cases, a bit of a fiasco, in which Rice and Hagel were hit by brickbats thrown from every direction, demeaning not only them, but the man who wanted them as members of his team.

Whether or not Rice and Hagel would have made good appointments is not here the question. Nor is whether or not it was smart for the Obama administration to float their names in such a target-rich environment. Rather what I am pointing to is the free-for-all that now passes for business as usual in Washington. When everyone wants to play the part of leader, and no one is willing to play the part of follower, the unhappy result is an unholy mess.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012 00:00

Current Corporate Culture

One of my overarching arguments is that, in general, leaders are weaker than they used to be and followers stronger. This seems to me to be so easy to see in politics, it's little short of obvious. But, arguably, it's less obvious in business. After all, for a constellation of reasons, strikes, boycotts, protests and the like are less frequent than at other points in history, certainly in the U.S. So, since employees at least seem on the surface to be relatively quiescent, leaders seem on the surface to be relatively secure.

But, as I wrote in the current issue of The European Business Review (EBR), while examples of encroachment by followers on leaders in the corporate realm may be less apparent, they are no less real. Like their public sector counterparts, private sector leaders and managers are obliged in this second decade of the 21st century to tend to their various followers, stakeholders, in ways that historically are unprecedented.

In my particular parlance, "stakeholders are all those whom leaders need to align if they are to accomplish what they want and intend." In this category are a range of players including, in addition to employees, shareholders, customers, competitors, and activists. As I put it in EBR, "Never before were CEOs told (implicitly or explicitly) to be so considered and considerate of their different stakeholders—followers. Never before were CEOs tasked with managing the web, social media, and other (present and future) mobile and interactive communications and information technologies. Never before were CEOs instructed to 'orchestrate co-creative engagement' … and to 'support a participatory culture.'" Never before, in short, were so many corporate leaders rendered so anxious by so many cautions concerning corporate followers.

If you look—that is, if you train your lens not on leaders, but on followers, on those who once went meekly along—you'll see what I mean. CEOs are more vulnerable than before, particularly perhaps to big shareholders, institutional investors, who, as Bloomberg Businessweek put it, had long been "dutiful supporters of management," but who now "aren't keeping quiet anymore." (11/26-12/2)

Even when things are good, investors and analysts are at CEOs in new and different ways, demanding their time and attention, insisting they explain themselves and defend whatever their decisions. According to the Wall Street Journal, C-level executives are attending 64% more private investor meetings than they did just one year ago. Why? Because they feel they "cannot afford to decline a meeting request." Moreover, when things are bad, the pressure on CEOs is that much greater. When WellPoint missed analysts' earning estimates for the second time in three quarters, a group of investors promptly demanded the ouster of CEO, Angela Braly.

Boards have gotten into the act as well. When as it became clear that Groupon was in trouble, the pressure on founder and CEO Andrew Mason was on. Apparently the board had no compunctions about signaling its willingness to shift Mason's role, even potentially to replace him. This was in spite of the fact that as Groupon's founder, Mason and his company were until now one and the same.

Whatever the corporate veneer, beneath it lurk roiling waters, with leaders vulnerable to changing cultures and technologies in business just as they are in politics. As Harvard Business School professor Rakesh Khurana recently put it, "We're seeing a radical transformation in corporate control and the relationship between management, directors, and investors. It used to be shareholders pushing against boards who were buffering the CEOs. But now investors are telling directors who should be the CEO and how management should run the company."

I use the term "leadership industry" to refer to the combined clout of the now countless leadership centers, institutes, programs, courses, seminars, workshops, experiences, books, blogs, articles, websites, webinars, videos, conferences, consultants, coaches, and trainers claiming to teach people how to lead. Of course in addition to leadership development is another aspect of the leadership industry—leadership studies. While teaching how to lead is, generally, where the money is, leadership scholarship is essential to the whole. It legitimates the leadership industry, which explains why as the business of teaching how to lead has burgeoned, the academic investment in leadership research, in learning about leadership, has grown as well.

While the interest in teaching leadership, however "leadership" is defined and whatever the particular pedagogy, is hundreds and even thousands of years old—think Lao Tse, and Plato, and Machiavelli—the leadership industry is new. Well, to be more precise, the idea that investing large sums of money in mass leader learning somehow pays off—many billions are spent each year in the U. S. alone—that's what's new, only about three decades old. This explains why I, who have been a leadership teacher and scholar since the 1980s, came to observe in the 1990s that the time likely was right for a professional association targeted at those who, in one or another way, made their living in leadership.

At the time I was based at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. And so it came to pass that, along with some colleagues both within the University and without, we established the International Leadership Association (ILA). The idea was to make it a magnet for leadership types of different sorts and from different places, including those far-flung.

The first annual meeting of the ILA was held in 1998, at the University of Southern California (USC). As I remember it, I was surprised by what seemed to me rather a large turnout for an embryonic organization based on an exploratory idea. But there they were, at least a couple of hundred strong, come to USC to talk about leadership.

Since then the ILA, along with the leadership industry more generally, has grown and flourished. It is now a freestanding organization, its offices located in Silver Spring, Maryland, which still defines itself almost exactly as it did at the start. The ILA is a "global network for all those who practice, study, and teach leadership." Moreover by now the association has in place strategic imperatives, and a set of values that include integrity and inclusivity, along with being inter-connected, inter-disciplinary, and inter-national.

The single most striking aspect of the ILA is as it was from day one—the annual meeting which assembles in one place at one time people from all over the world with an overweening interest in leadership and even, in some cases, in followership. At the most recent meeting in October 2012, in Denver, attendance was said to be some 1,000 strong, with an assortment of consortiums, panel discussions, paper presentations, symposia, poster sessions, concurrent sessions, roundtables, workshops, keynotes, special events, books signings, learning communities, and interest groups that was little short of mind-boggling. So was the number of leadership initiatives that chose to publicize themselves for the occasion, including programs (e.g. the Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Eastern University), and publishers (e.g. leadership books from Edward Elgar Publishing), and publications of various sorts (e.g. my own most recent book, The End of Leadership)—even a new leadership launch at the New York Times. The range of topics was equally striking—from "How Cognitive Neuroscience is Shaping Leadership Development," to "Understanding Sub-Sahara African Leadership," to "A Taoism-Oriented Model of Strategic Leadership," to "Exploring the Impact of Ethical Leadership and Abusive Supervision of Employee Well-being."

Neither the ILA nor its annual meetings are for everyone, and there are other professional associations that are in some ways direct competitors. (The American Management Association refers to itself as "Leaders in Leading.") Moreover the ILA continues to suffer certain deficits. One to which I publicly alluded in a talk I gave in Denver was the relative paucity of evidence at the annual meeting of first rate scholarship, and also of faculty from first rate schools. But for those with a professional focus on leadership and followership, the ILA continues to provide a singular opportunity to present work to a presumably interested audience, to meet like-minded colleagues, and to survey the field entire. The ILA's annual meeting is worth checking out at least one time—next year's is in Montreal which, among its other virtues, has great eats!

Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and the founding Executive Director of the Center for Public Leadership. She is also the author of, most recently, The End of leadership.

Monday, 10 September 2012 00:00

Kellerman addresses St. Gallen grads

The following speech was delivered by Barbara Kellerman on August 25, 2012 to the graduating class of MBA students at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerald.

Our line of work is leadership. I study it. You likely already have, or you will, exercise it. But we are not alone in our fixation on leadership—this fixation is a phenomenon that is universally shared. We obsess about persons in positions of ostensible power, imagining they somehow are able, quite literally, to control the action. In the U.S. for example, we have for many months now been completely consumed by the contest between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—though the presidential election remains even now a season away.

I, however, am a contrarian. I try to pry people—in this case you—away from their obsession with the leader, and toward two other phenomena, which to my mind, and in line with my research, are every bit as significant. The first of these is context—an all-important but largely neglected explanation for why things happen the way they do. I am especially interested in the development of contextual intelligence, which in the 21st century is every bit as important as the other intelligences, such as, for example, emotional intelligence.

Thursday, 23 August 2012 00:00

Forgotten Fed-Up Follower

He's back! After three months of radio silence, fed-up follower pin-up boy Julian Assange is back to taunt the political and penal establishments across Europe and America. Assange is, of course, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks, who happens also to be wanted in Sweden on charges of rape and sexual molestation.

But now is different. Now Assange has been given asylum by Ecuador—which is why on Sunday he was perched on the balcony of the Ecuadoran Embassy in London, to speak to the crowd below and demand the U.S. "renounce its witch hunt against WikiLeaks."

The Austrailian-born Assange is something of a genius. Whatever he did or did not do in Sweden (he denies all charges against him), he was able against all odds to post to the web hundreds of thousands of secret documents, most from the U.S. State Department relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover he is a self-dramatist. Again, against all odds, he has managed to remain free after a fashion, eluding incarceration by staying one step ahead of the authorities. Think of Assange as an old-fashioned outlaw, scum to some and a hero to others—to those who believe in radical transparency.

But behind Julian Assange is another fed-up follower, an all but invisible man by the name of Bradley Manning. Manning is the young army intelligence analyst who was charged by the U.S. government with feeding Assange those secret Pentagon documents. For his troubles, Manning, who has been hidden from the public since the scandal broke (in 2010), faces a court-martial and possible life sentence.

When he spoke in London a couple of days ago, Assange drew attention to Manning, calling him on the one hand a "hero" and on the other "one of the world's foremost political prisoners." Whatever you might think of Assange, or of Wikileaks, or for that matter of Bradley Manning, Assange is right to point to Manning's plight. Since he was initially arrested, the 22 year-old Army private has been treated harshly, extremely harshly. In fact, for the first nine months of his imprisonment he was put in solitary confinement, despite evidence he was entirely different from Assange, not a cool customer but a troubled youngster. Only after an international protest drew attention to his cruel and unusual punishment, was Manning more conventionally confined, though to this day we hear hardly a word about him or his plight, from any of the authorities.

Americans don't think of themselves as having political prisoners. And, even if they, we, did, there's a question whether Manning would qualify. But when Assange accuses the U.S. government of a "witch hunt" against WikiLeaks, it's not so clear he's way off base.

This post originally appeared on BarbaraKellerman.com.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012 00:00

Rising Up in the Land of the Rising Sun

After its defeat in the second World War, Japan's culture and society underwent fundamental change. But as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami—and the ensuing nuclear calamity—revealed, this change was not sufficient to preclude decision making that was deeply flawed.

In the 1970s and '80s Japan was an economic powerhouse, rivaled only by the U.S. Since then it suffered slight decline, though compared to most of the rest of the world the Japanese economy remains impressive.

The same cannot be said of the Japanese government, which for decades has suffered from a "parade of prime ministers"—from a continuing circumstance in which no single prime minister has been able to hold on to power long enough to provide a stable and secure government. Japan's political system is, in other words, fragmented and fractions to the point of dysfunction. (Such dysfunction is not, of course, peculiar to Japan.)

All this became crystal clear in the wake of the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, during which, to its credit, the Japanese government did some serious soul searching. Parliament set up the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, charged with uncovering why the country failed so egregiously to handle the disaster swiftly and sanely. Concluded Kiyoshi Kurokawa, the commission’s chairman, "It was a profoundly man-made disaster—that could and should have been foreseen and prevented."

Predictably, the commission's report placed blame on the usual suspects: faulty planning, weak regulation, likely malfeasance, and a breakdown in communications. Unpredictably, Kurokawa reserved his most damning criticism for Japanese culture, which he implied was reminiscent of the traditional authoritarian mindset that characterized Japan during its long (pre-World War II) history. In his introduction to the English version of the report, the chairman wrote that the fundamental causes of the disaster were to be found in the "ingrained conventions of Japanese culture; our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program;' our groupism; and our insularity." In other words, the commission found that the Japanese people were stuck in a rut—stuck in a world in which people in positions of authority controlled the action, while followers conformed, meekly towing the line.

Whether the report—released earlier this month—will have an impact over the long term remains obviously to be seen. But it is clear even now that Japan’s political elite is finally facing what in many other countries has become a familiar 21st century sight: widespread public protest. Tens of thousand of protesters now gather each week in front of the prime minister's residence, shouting anti-nuclear slogans. It's conceivable, then, that the crippling public distrust that followed Fukushima will spark the sort of change that Japan has long needed—in which ordinary people actively participate in determining their future.

This post originally appeared on barbarakellerman.com.

The End of Leadership, the latest work by Barbara Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns Lecturer at HKS, hits bookstores on Tuesday, April 3rd. Join us for a CPL Research Seminar with Professors Kellerman and Rakesh Khurana on April 4th as they discuss the book and share their thoughts on the future of leadership.

Space is limited, Harvard affiliates only.

Wednesday, April 4
11:40-1:00 p.m.
Darman Seminar Room, CPL
RSVP required, email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it to attend

More on The End of Leadership from HarperCollins: From one of the pioneers in the field of leadership studies comes a provocative reassessment of how people lead in the digital age: in The End of Leadership, Barbara Kellerman reveals a new way of thinking about leadership—and followership—in the twenty-first century. Building off of the strengths and insights of her work as a scholar and a teacher, Kellerman critically reexamines our most strongly-held assumptions about the role of leadership in driving success. Revealing which of our beliefs have become dangerously out-of-date thanks to advances in social media culture, she also calls into question the value of the so-called "leadership industry" itself. Asking whether leadership can truly be taught, Kellerman forces us to think critically and expansively about how to thrive as leaders in a global information age.

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