There is a lot of literature about leadership, there even is a lot of literature about political leadership, written by political scientists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, neuro-scientists ...
- but which of those books are the classics, which maybe the most innovative or most insightful, which the most controversial or most influential?
And there is a lot of talk about leadership, in the media, at the pup, even at work ... , almost always demanding more, better, stronger or just questioning current political leadership.
We are concerned about and we talk passionately about leadership, we write about and research political leadership - but what do we really know?
And why is it even important to understand?

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Barbara Kellerman [2014]

Hard Times: Leadership in America

Quote: "Leadership is not a profession. Nor is it, or it ought not to be, a stepping stone, to, say, money or power or authority or even influence. Rather it is a mission." [pos. 5016] "The exercise of leadership is not exercise taken alone. It's a team effort that necessarily implies, or it should, the engagement and participation of others." [pos.568]

Abstract: In Hard Times Barbara Kellerman, James Macgregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard's F. Kennedy School of Government and renown author of various books on leadership, focuses on context. By providing a checklist of "what you need to know about context if you want to lead in the United States of America in the second decade of the  twenty-first century" [pos. 60] she gives a state of the art insight in today's changing challenges of leadership and a profound analysis of the American political system.

Key-Words: leadership - political leadership - 21st century challenges - contextual expertise

Definition of Leadership: systemic - including three equally important, independent and interdependent parts, the leader, the follower and the context

  • contexts count
According to Kellerman leadership is a complex system that consists of three independent but interdependent components, the leader, the follower and the context. She describes context as a series of concentric circles: immediate and proximate (inner circles) and the more expansive environment, such as ideological, political, economic, cultural, technological and financial (outer circles).

She argues that in order to lead successfully leaders need not solely concentrate on self-improvement but primarily need contextual expertise and they need such expertise, such understanding before they "can even begin to act" [pos.117]. They need to know since the "crisis of (American) leadership is much less about leaders themselves and much more about the complex context within which they are expected to operate" [pos.120].   

Context is not static, it is always changing. The above argument seems even more important considering the ever more rapid speed of change.

  • emboldened followers - weakened leaders
The "rise of leadership as an object of our collective fascination has coincided precisely with the decline of leadership in our collective estimation" [pos.93] .

Kellerman paints 21st century America as a world where the relationship between leaders and followers has undergone a severe shift in power from the erstwhile powerful to the powerless, from leaders to followers.

She describes this ongoing transition as a result of major contextual changes, a changing culture following the technological revolution. "The changing technologies challenge leaders nonstop. In Addition to the size of change is the speed of change." [pos.1930] 24/7 media cycles, empowering social media etc. play a main part, even more so than justified disappointment in bad leaders, in undermining leadership - leaders seem somehow set up to failure.

"Followers are making their lives difficult - and because everywhere context is both a cause and an effect of this power dynamic" [pos.150] leading becomes ever more complicated, ever more difficult. Leaders have become popular targets, watched with suspicion, not trusted, not admired - and that is a worldwide trend. A trend that does not stop at political leaders, it includes all kind of leaders and any manifestation of authority, such as institutions.

Even historically it might have been a lot easier in democracies to bring about change from the bottom up than the top down, effective followership had always been easier than effective leadership.

  • 21st century challenges
Though acknowledging an inherent tension between leadership and democracy, made obvious in American culture and constitution, Kellerman states that "leadership (in America) is more difficult to exercise now than it has ever been before" and "changing times, hard times continue to complicate the task." [pos.206] 

In order to help completing this difficult task Kellerman proposes a contextual checklist (24 parts including history, ideology, religion, politics, economics, institutions, organizations, law, business, technology, media, money, innovation, competition, class, culture, divisions, interests, environment, risks, trends, leaders, followers and outsiders) that should ensure a better understanding of context and in so far of leadership and as a result enable effective leadership.

But it is not only ordinary followers that challenge leaders, it's also other leaders, political competitors as well as economic leaders (the moneyed elite), national and global leaders (governmental and non-governmental) that keep pushing. And it is an ever more complex environment, where there are no simple solutions. "No wonder", so Kellerman that "leaders in twenty-first century (America) often feel overwhelmed and undervalued." [pos.4843]

Critique: Hard Times is the latest addition of Kellerman's extensive publications on leadership and in particular political leadership and it surpasses her former work. Though obviously a logical follow-up to The End of Leadership published in 2012, it's Hard Times that really shows the potential of how a modern study of political leadership could look like - knowledgeable, savvy and diligent.

Kellerman succeeds in presenting a thourough theoretical argument but she also shows how to put her theory into practise. Her book is much more a handbook on how to do a study on leadership than a how-to-do-book on leadership itself.

Finally though concentrating on the US-American political system and its so-called leadership crisis it is evidently, even blatantly an informed book about political leadership in the 21st century, about what remains unchanged and what changed, it is about the old and new challenges leaders and followers face as they try to bring about change.
First Sentence: "What's been lost in the discussion of leadership - in the infinite number of discussions on leadership - is context." [pos. 54]

Last Sentence: "These (refers to "no American leader can genuinely engage American followers unless he or she exemplifies that which has stood the test of time ... American history ... American ideology ... the best of those who shaped/exemplified it" [pos. 5017]) remain remarkably, gorgeously, unchanged even now." [pos. 5020]
Language: english - needs time to read

Assessment: maybe her best, yet
Link to Author's Site: Barbara Kellerman, leadership expert and author among others of 
Bad Leadership [2004], Followership [2008], The End of Leadership [2012] and the above reviewed Hard Times [2014] blogs regularly on: 
there you can also find a booklist and recent articles.
Link to video (~10 min):

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