Notwithstanding the mood of the moment—which is to lionize the leader—this was the year of the follower. This was the year in which those who historically lacked power and influence exercised more power and influence than anyone thought possible even a year or two ago. It does not detract in the least from the preternatural political skills of Barack Obama to say the times made the man. More precisely, the times met the man, which is why the 2008 presidential election will go down as a turning point in human history, not just in American history.
We have had such turning points before, points at which power devolves from—drops from—the top down. The late 18th century was such a watershed moment. Both the American and French revolutions were all about upending kings who, until then, were absolute monarchs. Similarly, during the mid-19th century, those who had little or nothing began demanding something. "Workers of the World Unite!" intoned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, while at near the same moment Elizabeth Cady Stanton put pen to paper in near the same spirit. "The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward women," Stanton declared. And then there's 1963. This was the year during which Martin Luther King Jr. wrote Letters From a Birmingham Jail , and Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Both King and Friedan did no less than overturn the existing order.
What happened then in 2008 is not new. In fact, it is only the latest example of a historical trend in which power and influence were more broadly disseminated. But given that this is a watershed moment, which the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States simply confirms, it makes sense to step back and ask why exactly it is now that things are moving so far so fast. Three reasons stand out.
The first is technology. We have barely begun to grasp the impact of technology on relations between leaders and led—which is not what it appears to be. The conventional wisdom of this election year has been that the Obama campaign was far smarter than any of the competition when it came to harnessing the Internet. That's true. But the more interesting and important story is the way in which the American people used the Internet to their own ends, to satisfy their needs, wants, and wishes. Call it if you will the American Idolization of American politics. Ordinary people are demanding now to be heard in new and different ways. They are content no longer to play observer. Rather the part they want to play—expect to play—is that of participant.
The second is the decline in respect for authority. This too is a trend, which accelerated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. First, there was the antiwar movement, and then the civil rights and women's movements. All three combined with a popular culture that was a counterculture, to create a context that broke from the past. In this brave new world, the police were called pigs, professors were disrespected, and presidents were pushed out of the Oval Office. Times have been tamer since—but they never returned to what they were. If anything, gen X-ers and in particular the newly named Millennial generation (born between 1982 and 2003) disdain even the idea of an all-powerful person in a position of authority telling them what to do and how to do it. Rather, they expect to exert their own personal control over both information and ideas. Tellingly, the popularity of YouTube exploded during this presidential campaign, as did MySpace and other social networking tools. They confirm the expected entitlement: Anyone and everyone can have their say and be heard the world over.
Finally, there is the still slow but now steady rise of groups and individuals that until recently were down and out. This year alone, presidential politics presided over the stunning success of Obama, the remarkable run of Hillary Clinton, and the surprising splash of Sarah Palin. This is not, of course, to say the struggle is over. American women, for instance, are still woefully underrepresented in top leadership roles, in both government and business. It is, however, to point to the obvious. The trend is unstoppable, and it is toward greater diversity, inclusion, and tolerance on issues relating to race, gender, and ethnicity.
Barack Obama is a remarkable man who ran a remarkable campaign. But he is also the product of a historical shift, the most striking aspect of which is the growing power and influence of many millions who, until a moment ago, were without either. No one understands this better than Obama himself. On the occasion of his election to the American presidency, he told the American people that change "cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you."
Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and author of Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders (Harvard Business Press).