Last Monday I was watching the news from Ferguson after reading the final pages of Hard Times: Leadership in America, Barbara Kellerman’s recent book about the “signposts” or context making it difficult for leaders in the United States.
CNN televised a live split screen. On one side President Obama was calling for peaceful, non-violent protest, and on the other side police in military style combat vehicles were approaching protestors turned rioters.
Not even the President of the United States with other local leaders including the family of the slain Michael Brown could restrain the leaderless crowd.
The telecast illustrated the theme of Hard Times — that for a variety of reasons beyond their control, many leaders in America are struggling while followers are increasingly emboldened making it more difficult than ever for those in positions of authority and responsibility.
For example, the unrest in Ferguson is much more than a local reaction to an otherwise isolated event in a nondescript suburb of St. Louis.
Ferguson is sub-text to America’s racial divide.
Kellerman contends that leadership in America has never been easy. The divisions and anti-authoritarian fervor that fueled the American Revolution continue to surface in anti-establishment causes including the unsuccessful Occupy movement (99 vs. 1 percent) and the Tea Party that has successfully paralyzed Congressional leaders in Washington.
Technology is the thread running through all the recent “signposts” of culture and current events. It has changed everything for everyone, especially for leaders.
“Leaders in the second decade of the twenty-first century”, she writes, “are by and large disadvantaged by having been born before the information revolution.”
And then quotes an IT executive – “Technology is far outpacing managers’ ability to use it to their business advantage.”
Leaders now live 24/7 ‘on demand’ lives, some receiving hundreds of emails a day, plus Facebook and Twitter messages.
In his recent book The End of Absence,” Michael Harris writes about leaders who check their email more than 50 times a day to stay in constant contact with followers, friends and adversaries.
A small group of individuals from outside the chain of command can coalesce on the Internet around a cause or complaint and force leaders and organizations to account, even bring them down.
Kellerman believes that outsiders are the third party in the leader/follower partnership. The Internet has democratized leaders and followers. Organizational hierarchies are brought down. Flat organizations are in.
Not that technology is necessarily disruptive, but as she writes, “so far as leaders are concerned, attention must be paid.”
Hard Times explains why American culture and current events make it difficult for the best of leaders and organization. Leaders may look too narrowly at their own particular context when aspirations and plans don’t produce intended results.
For instance, a pastor may wonder why attendance is declining while the congregation is doing all the right things. Hard Times would suggest that it is important to understand the larger context: church attendance and denominational loyalty are in decline everywhere. Churches are not growing as they did even a decade ago.
Kellerman reminds us that jobs are disappearing and wages declining for middle-class Americans. Thus there may be many reasons why congregational giving and attendance is down, or at least not growing as it once did.
To think like a leader in the second decade of the twenty-first century, is to look beyond, as well to the immediate context and master the new skills that communication and technology demands.