01 Mar 2008


Where Have All the Leaders Gone?


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In the following article, the first in a series of occasional opinion pieces by HBS alumni who are professional writers, Time magazine’s national political correspondent Karen Tumulty (MBA ’81) takes a hard look at leadership in American public life.

If you spend as much time as I do around politicians, you hear a lot about leadership. They all promise to offer it, in different shapes and forms. Strong leadership. Bold leadership. Tested leadership. But these days, it is getting harder and harder to figure out what, precisely, it means to lead. When was the last time you heard a politician make any demand of a voter? Or even go before an audience and say something that someone might actually disagree with?

A recent book by Hillary Clinton’s political guru Mark Penn illustrates the conundrum of finding anything that resembles a national purpose these days. The most powerful forces in society today, he argues, are what he calls microtrends. “The power of individual choices has never been greater, and the reason for those choices never harder to understand and analyze,” Penn tells us. “The skill of microtargeting — identifying small, intense subgroups and communicating with them about their individual needs and wants — has never been more critical in marketing or in political campaigns. The one-size-fits-all approach to the world is dead.” In politics, he says, that means catering to the demands of highly defined and idiosyncratic groups such as “Newly Released Ex-Cons” and “Christian Zionists.”

The country may have been built on the idea of individualism, but we have come to expect that it be factored into practically every aspect of our lives. Cars are built so that every passenger can create his own climate zone. We customize our music and then implant the made-to-order entertainment directly into our ears. And what bigger marketing success have we seen in the past generation than the coffeehouses where the placing of your order means making a half-dozen choices? Even the family is no longer its own community, as we are staying single longer, getting divorced, never marrying at all, and living longer. As a result, each of us is far more likely to be the head of a household than ever before, and less likely to have to share a bathroom.

You see that in politics as well, to the point where you have to wonder whether Americans have simply become unleadable. Leadership used to mean giving people a sense of being something larger than themselves, and convincing them that, with a clear sense of what unites them, Americans are capable collectively of achieving just about anything. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the country believe it could crawl out of a depression, rallied it around social change that created a middle class, and mobilized the greatest military in the world to conquer fascism. After American confidence had been shattered by Sputnik, John F. Kennedy made it possible to dream of going to the moon. Lyndon Johnson convinced the country it was too big and too good to tolerate racial segregation; Ronald Reagan convinced America that it was still strong enough to bring down the Soviet Union.

You don’t hear much of that kind of talk anymore, especially from those who proclaim themselves to be our leaders. The events of 9/11 brought the country together like nothing since World War II. But in their wake, the only thing Washington asked of us was that we go shopping. Rather than challenge voters, politicians look for the lowest common denominator. My own industry is no small part of the problem. We, too, are seeking niches. The fragmentation of the news media means Americans no longer have to listen to the serious discussion of ideas with which they might disagree. If you don’t like what you’re hearing on the old standbys of broadcasting, flip the channel to FOX. If you want even more reinforcement, there’s talk radio and the blogs.

Nor is there any willingness to talk about real costs. We are now fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are costing nearly $15 billion a month, and passing the entire bill along to our children. As Goldman Sachs International Vice Chairman Bob Hormats has noted, this is the first major conflict since the Revolutionary War that has not been accompanied by higher taxes and lower spending for nonessential domestic programs. The only people sacrificing now are our troops and their families.

And even this is a relatively small slice of the country. More than 1.5 million Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I am writing this, the official military fatality count is approaching 4,000. But a survey last year by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that barely over a quarter of adults — 27 percent — have a very close family member or friend who has served in the current military effort in Iraq or Afghanistan. And it is not only in combat that so little is being asked of America as a whole. Statistics continue to show the country does a worse job than most of the industrialized world in educating its children and ensuring health coverage for all. Confidence in our public institutions is near all-time lows, but what about fixing them? Nearly half of us don’t even bother to vote.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that polarization has been the driving force of the last few elections. While George W. Bush may have come to Washington promising to unite us, not divide us, he won reelection by doing the opposite. Instead of finding ways to bring people together, he exploited our divisions and concentrated on motivating his own political base, doing it better than the other side did.

When I asked Karl Rove in late 2003 about his strategy for the coming election, he pulled from his briefcase a laminated card that he said reflected the central dynamic at work in the electorate. It showed five neat bar graphs for each presidential election since 1988, as well as for the 2002 midterm contest. Republicans were in red, Democrats in blue, and between them a shrinking wedge of green that showed the truly independent voter, a segment that had diminished with each contest.

That worked in 2004, but there are signs that things are changing. Maybe the real trend here is that Americans aren’t as willing as they used to be to mold themselves into neat categories. In nearly every state, voter registration by political party is diminishing. More and more people are declaring themselves independents, who now account for more than a third of the voting public. They cast their votes not on ideology and old loyalties, but on a more pragmatic assessment of their own — and their community’s — interests.

The last election saw incumbents lose in dozens of congressional districts that had been deemed (and drawn) to be solidly in the hands of the Republican Party. Democrats know, however, that having raised voter expectations for real results, those are the very districts they stand to lose in this election if they do not deliver.

But perhaps the most promising sign is that, as their institutions fail them, Americans are once again finding ways to do things on their own. As Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel noted in a recent cover story calling for a new commitment to national service, more than 61 million people in this country dedicated a total of 8.1 billion hours to volunteerism in 2006. That’s a rate that has increased by more than 6 percentage points since 1989. They are finding a national purpose on their own.

Americans themselves are getting ahead of their leaders. Could it be that those who offer leadership should be asking for it instead?

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1981, Section F

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