Leadership remains a pre-eminent concern of 21st century life. The turn of the century brought with it renewed discussions of what it means to be a proper leader as well as a consideration of the social values that leadership demands. Underpinning these debates are shifting notions of political and social responsibility.
Conventional assumptions of the public and private are quickly evaporating as the power and influence of the state has receded in response to the growth of neoliberalism and globalisation. Prompted by a political consensus of the value of markets to hitherto non-commercial realms, and by a more general economisation of ever-broadening aspects of life, economics has eclipsed politics as the central governing discourse. By now everything from education, to health care, to prisons, and even to one’s personal social relationships are conceived of in terms of competition, exchange, financial self-interest and personal advantage.
Corporations, in turn, have taken on, at least rhetorically, a more active role in providing for social welfare and public goods, as well as for being direct players in global politics. In light of these changed practices, perceptions of what it means to lead both public and private institutions are being dramatically transformed.
The changes to leadership heralded through neoliberalism are witnessed in the evolving image of elected politicians in relation to that of corporate managers. The ideal politician is increasingly one who embodies the business values of efficiency, agility and profitability. Popularly referred to at times as the ‘CEO president’, this model of political authority reflects a government’s perceived role in maximising a country’s economic competitiveness within a volatile global market.
There is a strange contrast, however, in that while politicians are acting like hardnosed tycoons, corporate authority figures are progressively touting their social responsibility as well as freely advising politicians on how they should go about governing the nation-cum-economy. Chief executives present their businesses as not simply profit-driven but as providing larger public goods such as environmental sustainability, social justice linked to diversity, and helping prepare workers for today’s job market. Even the Volkswagen Group, shaken in 2015 by a scandal over rigging millions of vehicles to falsely pass fuel emissions tests, could proudly claim that: ‘as far as Volkswagen Group is concerned, bearing its social responsibility has long been at the heart of our corporate culture’.
The convergence of corporate and political leadership is indeed ironic in that it tends to reversal. The private has become public and vice versa. On one level, this paradoxical condition of the way leadership is represented simply reflects existing socio-political realities. However, popular discourses are also influential in constituting and reinforcing such ideological shifts. These dynamic changes are where, in the CEO society, corporate leadership has come to infuse the meaning and practice of political leadership.
In proffering that politicians should emulate the styles of corporate executives, this new leadership strengthens the marketed perceptions of the state’s function heralded by neoliberalism.
This is a trend that takes the well-established practice of new public management as a means through which public services and non-profit organisations are managed like corporations and extends the dominance and ubiquity of corporate models to the ‘management’ of nations themselves.
The changes we outline are not benign; they mark the further embedding of the triumph of neoliberalism over democracy. The rise of the CEO politician is part of the broader cultural changes in the expected social role of government as being both modelled on, and in service of, corporations. Rather than being accountable servants of the electorate, in the CEO society politicians are expected to be active decision makers in pursuit of efficiency and competitiveness.
This represents the deeper transformation in the functions of public leadership, with politicians progressively expected to maintain a country’s economic solvency in a competitive capitalist global economy. Centrally important is how the extension of corporate models of leadership to politics is helping to strengthen neoliberalism ideologically, and to weaken democracy practically. Moreover, questioning these leadership discourses can create new opportunities for challenging this emerging neoliberal status quo.
Even though in contemporary times it is politicians who are increasingly emulating CEOs, the story starts in a manner quite opposite to this. Historically, the popular perceptions of the virtues associated with CEOs saw the forms of charismatic authority previously associated with political leaders become translated into the business domain. As sociologist Max Weber defined it long ago:
“The term ‘charisma’ [is] applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with super-natural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them, the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”
Political leaders have conventionally been judged, at least within liberal democracies, according to political values of consensus building and policy acumen. The ideal leader was one who could craft and implement effective policies and garner the support of the citizenry. Moreover, their success was linked to their capacity to maintain ruling coalitions as well as foster inclusiveness. They did so commonly, or at least ideally, through inspiring mass sections of the population with the very charisma that Weber identified, acting as ‘spell-binders’ for pursuing specific ideologies and policy goals. Their success hinged, furthermore, on the delicate balance of presenting a clear alternative to rivals while maintaining a close affinity to the voter’s existing political positions.
At a more prosaic level, politicians were deemed successful based on their continued electoral viability. Outside of normative concerns of ideology or judgements of effectiveness, there lay a general view that a political leader was only as strong as their ability to win power. While not always ethically esteemed, in this regard there is a certain respect granted to the political actor who can navigate the cutthroat world of modern democratic politics. This reflects the traditional ‘great man’ view of political leadership, whereby politicians are rendered publicly into ‘heroes’, inspiring individuals to follow them with reverence and awe.
The image of the modern-day CEO draws heavily on this epic tradition, transforming the business manager from an effective administrator to a transformational business hero.
As charismatic leadership became a catchphrase for corporate management in the 1980s and 1990s, it was also infused into the ‘new’ politics. During that time, traditional political values of inspirational consensus building took on a new life, particularly within much of the West, and especially in the United States and Great Britain. President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair exemplified this potent mixture of seemingly charismatic appeal, effective policy making and electoral success. Clinton’s leadership style was described, in this regard, as connecting with voters personally through his charisma. Political commentator Mike McArdle proselytises as follows:
“Bill Clinton was a political genius in a lot of ways. But his brilliance was not in framing issues or governing or formulating policy; he had advisors for those things. Bill’s genius was in positioning himself in the public’s eye. His dazzling personal skills gave him the ability to make a member of any audience feel that he is speaking directly to them, that he was one of them.”
The ideology of the ‘third way’ was positioned politically as both novel and centrist, but it was driven through tried and tested ideals of political leadership.
These ideals reflected a desire both to win and to achieve tangible social results, linked to an inclusive and widespread coalition politics. Just as importantly, they connected this rather moderate pro-market agenda with established political tropes of individual and collective uplift. Famous chronicler of political leadership, Fred Greenstein, observed a passionate appeal made by Clinton to an African-American audience in support of his centrist agenda:
“In March, I happened on a telecast of Clinton addressing an African American church congregation that could scarcely have been more responsive if Martin Luther King had been in the pulpit. Speaking with ease and self- assurance, Clinton issued a call for policies that would enable citizens to lift themselves by their bootstraps rather than relying on government handouts. Explaining that he was making the same proposal to audiences of whites, Clinton called on all Americans to put aside their differences and recognize their common bonds.”
Thus even as the political class increased their commitment to economic management and development, political authority remained predominantly wedded to the established paradigms of the charismatic and effective ‘political leader’; the very paradigm that business leaders themselves were being urged to emulate.
This is an extract from CEO Society, available now from Zed Books.