What the hell is happening? We can look back at centuries of good and bad leadership. Our culture is rife with leadership programs, courses, and institutes. Books on leadership rain from the sky. We are obsessed with leadership.
And yet in virtually every industry and institution today we can find numerous examples of absolute horseshit leaders and they only seem to be multiplying. Harassment, abuse, negligence, corruption, and incompetence are commonplace everywhere from Silicon Valley and Wall Street to higher education and government. We can’t shake it. It’s gotten so bad that the current “leader” of the free world exemplifies every one of those problems mentioned above and so, so many more. He is, in fact, a paradigm of a horrible leader. Of course it’s not just the Oval Office. The word “kakistocracy” is becoming a normal part of our lexicon.
How did we get here?
Two big reasons:
Good and ethical leaders want to contribute in a positive way to their community and society. In a plutocracy, however, people in positions of power are self-serving. They have no interest or motivation to help others.
Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money details the rise of an extremist political ideology that greatly advantages the grotesquely wealthy elites. Money buys power, a malignant brand of power that serves no greater good. It’s end goal is only to acquire more power.
While plutocracy refers to a government run by the wealthy elite, it stems directly from a corrupt relationship with the private sector. Quarterly myopia and the race to the bottom shows us just where some corporate leaders’ motives lie—not in long-term progress, stability, and service to community, but in quick accumulation of wealth and power.
Wall Street was once a financial service industry. That is, the financial industry’s mission was to serve the public in order to maintain sustainable growth and productivity. Now it is purely self-serving. The People serve Wall Street so that the industry can accumulate wealth and power at an unimaginable level.
Qualifications, experience, ability, or moral obligation be damned. The name of the game is money, and that means getting people with money in positions of power so that they can acquire more money and power. Again, malignant power, which is a zero-sum game. Someone has got to lose. In this case it’s the general public.
When this happens, the people in positions of power are thieves. They have no incentive to be sound leaders. And because anyone they might report to are of the same mind, there is no accountability. It makes for a highly hospitable environment for horseshit leaders to thrive and multiply.
Sound leaders want to develop other leaders and they seek out potential leaders based on merit. Cronyism, however, cares nothing about who would make a sound leader. It’s all about people in positions of power wanting their own kind around them.
Cronyism goes hand-in-hand with a plutocracy (crony capitalism is plutocracy’s key ingredient), but it can be more insidious. It’s not just macro-cronyism where entire industries like Silicon Valley and Big Pharma grease each other’s palms to strengthen their domination. It’s the cronyism that happens on a smaller scale that is perpetuating bad leadership. Horseshit leaders hire and promote horseshit leaders. Because they are often narcissists, they see what they think is the right stuff in people who resemble themselves, and this results in propagation of lousy leaders.
In all kinds of industries, people regularly get hired into powerful positions and given ungodly amounts of money from VCs to lead new ventures based on things like their association with people in positions of power. (Why in God’s name would anyone in their right mind give money to someone like Jared Kushner?)
If you’ve held a job for more than a couple years, you know how this works. Someone in a leadership position likes the cut of some schmuck’s jib and they’re advanced to the C-suite. Out of cronyism or sheer laziness the people who have no business being leaders become just that. They say, the devil you know is better than the one you don’t, but the problem is he’s still the goddamn devil.
This glut of poor leadership is not unprecedented. Not by long shot. (The early- to mid-20th Century was a pretty tough period, for instance.) And there are in fact some inspiring leaders out there today. Knowing that we do sometimes actually learn from history and that good and ethical leaders are more powerful than their lesser counterparts, let’s all hope that the tide will turn. Let’s do more than hope, actually. Let’s work tirelessly to hire, promote, and advance good leaders into powerful roles, expelling horeshit leaders to the margins where they belong.