Barbara Kellerman: A great leader knows when to step back

BarbaraKellermanKellerman’s latest book, “The End of Leadership,” was selected for the longlist of the 2012 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

In an interview with Today’s Zaman, she underlines the power transition from leaders to followers.
In your book “The End of Leadership,” you mention that the balance between leadership and followership has changed. Can you elaborate? “The End of Leadership” tells two tales. The first is about change — about how and why leadership and followership have changed over time, especially in the last 40 years. As a result of cultural evolution and technological revolution, the balance of power between leaders and followers has shifted, with leaders becoming weaker and followers stronger.

In the 1960s all figures of authority were in decline. So had I been teaching at Harvard 30, 40 years ago, references to me would be “Professor Kellerman” as opposed to “Barbara.” Today they call me by my first name. Becoming a leader has become a mantra. The explosive growth of the “leadership industry” is based on the belief that leading is a path to power and money, a medium for achievement and a mechanism for creating change. But there are other parallel truths: That leaders of every stripe are in disrepute; the tireless and often superficial teaching of leadership has brought us no closer to nirvana; and followers nearly everywhere have become, on the one hand, disappointed and disillusioned, and on the other, entitled and emboldened.

What is the importance of context in leadership?

It’s impossible to exaggerate, and I wonder why leadership education and development training programs largely omitted the complexities of context that impinge on the dynamic of the leader-follower relationship.

So if you and I try to have a conversation about how effective the president of Harvard University is, what are the contextual factors? Her name is Drew Faust, she is the president now. What would be the contextual factors that would be relevant to that conversation? They would be that it’s Harvard, which is different from many other universities in many ways. It’s not irrelevant that it’s in Cambridge in the state of Massachusetts. It’s not irrelevant that it is an American university in the year 2013. Her predecessor’s name was Larry Summers; the way that he was pushed out by the board is not irrelevant. So you cannot understand Drew Faust, president of Harvard — that whole dynamic — without taking a somewhat broader look beginning with the inner context and going further and further out to really have a clear sense of where, the time and the place this particular leader-followership dynamic is taking place.
If we’re talking about leadership in the public sector — leadership in Turkey, leadership in Syria, leadership in the United States. … How do you understand what’s happening in Syria now? Can you understand it?

You obviously have to contextualize it — in history, in the context of the so-called Arab Spring, in the context of the Middle East, in the context of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In other words, these movements generally, for many years now — you can again go back wherever how far you want to go back — but these freedom movements, these throwing out the dictators, that is a gradually unfolding process that has gone on for many years, and in order to understand what’s happening in Syria in July of 2012, to really understand it, you need to take little bit of time to put it in context — historical context and contemporaneous context.

You talk about the Internet and social media and their influence on leadership. Can you elaborate on this?

Probably the Internet and social media are the most revolutionary communication technologies since the printing press. It’s the first technology that allows communication and connection in every possible direction: top down, bottom up and peer connections. … The impact of the extreme connectivity is not only technological — it is psychological and emotional.

These communication technologies have an impact on a simple experience of purchasing an item or spending money for a meal or whatever it is. So that’s what I mean by the balance and power shifting. … The technology and culture are combining to give ordinary people capacities that they have never had before in human history.

How can we teach good followership? What are the cornerstones of followership?

The followers of 500 or even 5,000 years ago were as important as today. The case I used in my book “Followership” is the case of Nazi Germany. If you want to understand what happened in Nazi Germany, you can’t just focus on Hitler; you have to look at what the German people did or didn’t do.

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