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Ideas | Joshua Macht

The leaders we deserve in the age of populism

Shutterstock/Kawin Ounpraserts/Kawin Ounpraserts

Robert Frost wrote the poem “Mending Wall” on the eve of World War I — a brutal era that would end with a blood-soaked Europe eventually mending its own walls. Like then, the theme of divisiveness once again hangs thick in the air.

Perhaps Frost was responding to world events by urging us to be mindful of others: The poem’s oft-repeated refrain “good fences make good neighbors” implies a deeply felt sense of trust that each side of the fence will play by the rules and work together to maintain order.

It’s precisely this sentiment that’s missing from so much of our current political leadership right now.

Instead, we’re witnessing something altogether different. The dark undertow of our current international wave of populism is tearing apart all that has been loosely stitched together, whether it be culture, class, or country. Those leading this unraveling are riling up the masses by stoking their distrust of the system and the elites who run it.


Our current predicament would not have surprised W. Edwards Deming, one of the titans of management thinking, who came of age in a postwar world shattered physically and culturally by the tsunami of fascism. His ground-breaking management ideas swiftly made sense of a broken globe and guided its reconstruction. “In 1945, the world was in a shambles,” Deming later explained. “American companies had no competition. So nobody really thought much about quality. Why should they? The world bought everything America produced. It was a prescription for disaster.”

Deming’s work influenced many fields but none more than modern industry. He called it Total Quality Management — a system of continuous evaluation and improvement — and it was central to Japan’s remarkable economic turnaround in the postwar period and several American company comebacks in the 1980s. The widespread success of that philosophy has put workers from around the world in direct competition with one another, making it all but impossible to return to the halcyon days of American manufacturing dominance.

But Deming was about much more than statistical control and bean-counting, performance evaluations and system upgrades. He believed in the innate desire of humans to do good work, and the way he squared that with the modern age offers important lessons for rebuilding our own fractured social order. Deming saw that we all work within systems that are complex and interconnected, but we often make decisions based on our own parochial worldview. The role of the leader is to ensure that we not only see the bigger picture but also understand our role within it.


Right now, however, those aiming to assume power seem much more intent on playing up all that divides us. And this comes at a cost.

The difficulty with the politics of divisiveness is that it creates a chain reaction: Division begets more division. Consider the Brexit. No sooner had the United Kingdom voted out of the European Union, than the Scots began floating secession again. The Northern Irish weren’t far behind. In London, thousands signed a petition to secede from the United Kingdom. The problem, as Deming recognized, is that deeper and deeper subdivisions only make the act of leadership that much more challenging. Just look at the United Kingdom, where they are struggling to reconcile their widespread desire to be separate with the economic need to be part of a common market.

Fact is, the world is more connected than ever — economically and technologically. We see this most poignantly when we watch the live streaming of a black man gasping for his final breath after he has been shot by police, or when we click through the postings from a stroller-strewn promenade in France. In an instant, we are collectively shocked, angered, and horrified. It’s as though the world is feeling one giant shuddering effect together.


Populists may exhort us to “take back our country,” but we are really much more like Robert Frost’s narrator and his neighbor: deeply connected by the very fences that keep us apart, at once divided and conjoined. This is precisely what Deming observed: While the lines that divide us in any system may be very necessary and real, people have a deep internal need to do good work together. The leader’s job is to reinforce how we can all work toward a common purpose. Truly effective leaders transform an organization by cogently articulating the changes that are needed; they also maintain respectful communications across every boundary.

Deming’s brand of leadership allows people to flourish because they have deep trust in their leaders as well as in one another across an array of subdivisions. Populism, too, has an important role to play. Upending a failed system and the leaders who perpetuate it is very much in the spirit of Deming.

Of course, capsizing the current order comes with consequences: Who will lead us back together after the revolution and how? What type of leader can at once cater to our individualism and still bring us together towards a greater good?

This is where Deming’s work and insights become so crucial.


At the core, he believed that workers are often stymied because they are put into bad systems. Deming tells us that “a bad system will beat a good person every time.” The fundamental way to improve, according to Deming, is for leadership to build trust across an ecosystem of silos, vendors, and partners who tend to have a natural suspicion of one another. Deming set out to capture his leadership philosophy in 14 points that are well worth reviewing. Three of these stand out as most relevant to the style of leadership that seems so direly needed today — and yet so lacking in today’s political arena. He implores leaders to:

Drive out fear; create trust;

Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship;

Include everyone in the company to accomplish the transformation.

Deming died in 1993. That same year, IBM announced that 60,000 people would be fired. Much of his writing about leadership was against this backdrop of a sinking American economy that had become eclipsed by Japanese productivity and innovation. Deming saw American leadership’s response to this decline as making a bad situation worse.

Instead of instilling cooperation and trust, Deming watched corporate leaders demotivate workers by pitting them against one another via statistically invalid methods for measuring their output. He believed (and controversially so) that many highly regarded management practices, such as forced rankings and management by objective, demoralized workers and zapped productivity — precisely the opposite of what was intended.

Building trust among a diverse set of people across a company — much less a nation — is no easy task; but it feels nearly impossible at a time when our faith in politicians, law and order, religion, and other societal institutions may be at an all time low. Continued job losses and wage stagnation aren’t helping the situation. Moreover, our heady pace of societal and technological change appears to create the perfect breeding ground for fear, anxiety, and fundamental distrust.


Deming understood these root causes of distrust and discontent. Toward the end of his life, he even conceded that his leadership ideas would have trouble taking hold in world that seems intent on dividing us from a very early age:

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers — a prize for the best Halloween costume, grades in school, gold stars — and on up through the university. On the job, people, teams, and divisions are ranked, reward for the top, punishment for the bottom. Management by objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.

These unknowable losses appear to be accumulating rapidly right now in painful ways as we watch the death toll rise from all that separates us. Unfortunately, our current crop of world leaders — with far too few exceptions — seem to exacerbate the polarization around the world that has turned so bloody.

Deming implies that we work in complex systems with forces of good and evil always in play; perhaps the single most important responsibility of our top leaders is to artfully mold and shape this dynamic to create shared success. All systems are rigged, of course. But great leaders adjust the rigging so as to capitalize on human potential, not destroy it.

The great danger that we face today is that our leaders are perpetuating a bad system that leaves out so many and caters to so few. Finding a better way will require a transformative leader who is not only persuasive but offers a compelling understanding of all that ails the current order. It’s not about being an insider or outsider. It’s about leadership that has a deep understanding of how things work and can suggest new ways of accomplishing common goals.

This also means that as a populace we need to be much more mindful of how all that separates us also unites us, as Robert Frost showed us so long ago. The leader’s role in this process is to show us the commonality among society’s striations. Instead of stoking our differences, we need an approach that demonstrates how it’s precisely our deep-seated diversity that can be the heart of our strength. None of this is easy. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult. But worth the risks.

All of this, however, points toward a much more nuanced and enlightened view of populism — one that simply might be out of reach for our current presidential hopefuls. Perhaps, instead, it’s time now to look beyond the current roster of political leaders, who all feel sadly compromised, and start to think now about what must be done to groom the next generation who might work together to maintain strong relationships across all that divides us. What would it take to develop leaders who will act plainly to build trust among their constituents and peers and not just talk about building walls or bridges? A healthy dash of Deming might go a long way in this process.

Our history is one of dramatic swings from periods of strife and conflict to reunification and back again. Right now, it feels as though everything is coming apart in brutal fashion. Given the right leadership, we can come together to mend what that is broken.

But we should also be honest about where we are headed. There is no undoing globalization, international trade, instant communication. We’re approaching uncharted territory, and who knows where the boundaries will be redrawn. “We are here,” Deming advised, “to make another world.”

Joshua Macht is executive vice president and group publisher at Harvard Business Review Group.