Leadership Lessons from 2011

Posted 12.30.2011

Wow, what a year this has been for good, bad, maddening and inspiring examples of leadership. In his column today, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius makes the case that historians will look back on 2011 as a “hinge” – a year in which momentous events set the stage for major changes in the future.  The challenge in writing an end of year recap on the leadership lessons to be learned for a year like this is deciding what not to write about.

On the list of things I’ve written about this year but won’t be writing about today are the reaction to the shooting of Representative Gabby Giffords and other victims in January, the killing of Bin Laden in May, the scandals at Ohio State and Penn State, the end of Anthony Weiner’s career in Congress, the News of the World phone hacking scandal and the death of Steve Jobs.  When stories like those don’t make the final list, you know it’s been a big news year.

What’s on my mind most on this penultimate day of 2011 is what’s behind Time magazine naming the Protestor its person of the year.   As the year unfolded, the Arab Spring spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Libya to Bahrain to Syria.   In the late Summer and early Fall, the Occupy Wall Street movement spread from Zucotti Park to cities around the U.S. and the world. As the year drew to a close, more than 50,000 Muscovites rallied in the streets to protest Vladimir Putin’s intent to name himself president of Russia for another decade or so.

2011 has been a rough year for autocrats and plutocrats.  It’s been the year when followers have banded together and organized themselves to shout out, “Enough!”   One of the images from this year that sticks with me most is an Egyptian in Tahrir Square holding up a sign that simply said, “I Am a Man.”  This was the year when hundreds of thousands organized themselves to be heard and acknowledged as human beings.  The technology of the smart phone, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook have enabled these movements to grow and spread at breathtaking speed.

As the customer relations debacle at Netflix earlier this year showed, this desire and ability of people to be heard as never before has implications for leaders across the board.  Perhaps the biggest of these is that if you’re in a leadership role you have to listen and pay attention. The demonstrated lack of that is likely why most Americans are so disgusted with Congress.  Taking the country to the brink time and again as illustrated in the debt ceiling debacle shows a leadership class that doesn’t get it.

If 2011 has anything to teach leaders,  it’s that if you don’t pay attention to what matters most, the people will make sure that you do and either vote with their feet or replace you if you don’t. There’s an old quote that’s been attributed to a number of people including Gandhi that seems to apply as never before.  “There go my people. I must follow them for I am their leader.”

It will be fascinating to see where the people lead their leaders in 2012 and how the leaders respond.

What are your predictions?