Why It Is Difficult for Leaders In America

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.

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6 Responses to Why It Is Difficult for Leaders In America

  1. Ken Mills says:

    Tom…this is a significant post. I appreciate the recognition regarding the challenge of leadership in these times. Your last comment is especially challenging: “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.”

    Thanks Tom.

    Ken Mills

  2. David W. Bowser says:

    The impact of social media on organizations is often underestimated. Learning Organizations are not exempt from this challenge. I am challenged to embrace newer generations who are fluent in the language of culture and social media. A great model to consider is the workforce of the Apple stores. Great blog post!

  3. Bob Sloan says:

    Tom –
    Interesting comments. You have provided some valuable insights into leadership in the 21st century. I agree with your comments that social media has changed everything. On the other hand there were some glaring deficiencies in basic leadership displayed by the President, the Governor, the Mayor and the Police Chief in Ferguson, Mo. The President thought a mere speech on TV would help quell the violence. This is more PR than leadership. He could and should have dispatched black representatives of his office ( either government employees who are respected in the black community or celebrities) to work in cooperation with the Governor and local authorities to meet with protestors to stem the violence before it began. The Governor could and should have found African American representatives to meet with the protestors before hand to keep the demonstrations peaceful. Where was the Governor during the entire episode? A leader would have been present at the scene. Everyone knew the grand jury decision was coming. More preparation was made to stop violence once it began rather than prevent it in the first place. The Attorney General could have been on the scene or working with the Governor to prevent violence ( appearing together at the scene beforehand would have been powerful ) but it seemed like the authorities stood by to watch and then condemn rather than take charge in a pro-active way. It was a failure of leadership all the way around.

    The only area where I may disagree with you is that the protesters seemed to have some leadership. When the mob gathered, some stood up and urged the crowd on. They had passion, a mission ( burn this bitch down ) and provided an example by leading the crowd into its destructive activity. The police were bystanders for the most part until the violence started. All of this fed into the news media who were there to cover the violence. The end result is that racial relations were damaged, Ferguson was damaged, poor people were hurt, the police lost moral authority, the Governor lost prestige, the President looked weak, our country looked bad. A lose, lose, lose scenario except for the media who had great TV. There will probably be a TV show or movie to follow. It’s a shame that we do not have effective leaders when they are needed the most. There are some valuable lessons that can be learned from this whole experience. However, it will take leadership from the President, the Attorney General, or the Governors Association, or someone for Heaven’s sake to follow up and make some change. Be accountable and report back on progress or obstacles. It is not easy but the lack of follow thru ( gun control, unemployment, foreign policy, climate change, immigration reform ) prevents real progress from being made.

    I am optimistic because eventually leaders emerge. Unfortunately we are now in the midst of a “blame game mentality” and our elected officials are devoid of the courage to speak out and become the leaders that we need because they fear the results of the next election or the possibility of making mistakes. Instead they look foolish and try to blame others. Books will be written about this period of time in the future and how we missed opportunities in any number of important areas. – Bob Sloan

  4. Jess Middendorf says:

    This is an astute insight into the contemporary mileu for all leaders, but especially for the church. We can so easily become insular in a world which will not allow it! Thanks for your post! It needs to be spread far and wide!

  5. Russ Long says:

    Thanks for introducing me to Barbara Kellerman. Her earlier book “The End of Leadership” was powerful, but I would have to say that this book has been liberating for me personally. In the pastoral setting, it is easy to think that John Maxwell was correct when he said, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” It sounds good, but the other side of the coin is that when outcomes fall short, leaders assume that it is the result of poor leadership. While that may be true in some instances, Kellerman’s reminder of the power of ones context is critical. As I read the checklist of 21 different contexts, I realized that many of those categories have sub-contexts. She confirms my suspicions that things have indeed changed since I entered the ministry 40 years ago.

  6. Carl Summer says:

    Tom, thanks again for another excellent post. You mentioned, “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.”

    While 85 % of all Churches of all groups or Denominations in the US and Canada are plateaued or declining, 15 % are not.

    Dr. Thom Rainer and his Church Consulting Firm worked with 557 Churches between 2004 and 2010. I just completed reading two books by him that reflect their findings, one titled, Autopsy of a Deceased Church – 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive, and the other one titled, I Am A Church Member. The two books very aptly address the issues facing the US and Canadian Church and how to be overcomers in this our day.

    Jesus promised to each of the Seven Churches in the days of the writing of the book of Revelation that they could be overcomers. He is still powerfully and pre-eminently present today in Churches that are into His Agenda. Jesus calls each of the Seven Churches a “candlestick.” It would seem to me that as involved Leaders it is not too much for us to believe and experience that He still lights the “candles” of His Candlesticks! We can all be part of that! It is His grace at work in our lives that can make it so!

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