Leading, Up Front and From Behind

Approximately 48 hours.

That is how long it took President Donald J. Trump, in his second formal address before cameras concerning this weekend’s violent protests in Charlottesville, VA, to specifically condemn the white supremacists, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and other members of hate groups who gathered to intentionally sow violence and discontent.

48 hours.

It took him approximately 47 fewer hours to throw shade at Kenneth C. Frazier, CEO of Merck & Co., Inc., after Frazier took a principled, public stand to resign from the President’s American Manufacturing Council in protest of Trump’s silence. Frazier’s piercing action is unambiguous. His renunciation this morning of the Commander-in-Chief’s acceptance of ugly, hateful elements in American culture tells you all you need to know about the character of Frazier the leader, and the man.

The conscience of the leader is equal to the conscience of the man. If those two elements are seemingly asymmetrical, it is only the appearance of conscience that is out of whack. No amount of explanation or wishful thinking that good character develops on the job can overturn this fundamental truth. In all my prior writing on leadership, I have never questioned the necessity of possessing strong moral character to lead well. How can a leader ever build lasting trust, make difficult calls with wisdom or tolerate the requirement of self-sacrifice if that leader’s innards are morally diseased? This is not hyperbole. It is the hard stuff of leading, something that seems to best show itself in dark times.

I had the pleasure of working at Merck from mid-2008 through late 2011. During my tenure I had the equal pleasure of working briefly with Ken Frazier. Today’s news held specific resonance for me because it was not about some far-off figurehead. It concerned someone I once knew. Really, I was not surprised by his actions. They were in perfect alignment with my former leader. That says something about the nature of principled leadership. A leader’s principles – or character – are in a state of constant examination. Will that leader’s response to pressure be a surprise or a confirmation? For those who have history with the leader, his or her reaction is never a true surprise. Somewhere in that leader’s history a kind of consistency is revealed, a consistency that forges loyal followers, not sometime fans.

Tonight our nation is faced with many revelations, and a challenge to define the style of leadership best suited for our health and longevity. Do we yearn for the leader who follows from behind, craning his neck to hear the applause he mistakes as approbation of his integrity? Or do we want the leader who steps up front to marry value with action, risking criticism for a need greater than personal benefit?

My money is on the latter choice, on an upfront leader like Ken Frazier.


Merck & Co., Inc. CEO Ken Frazier’s resignation from President’s American Manufacturing Council, August 14, 2017, Twitter: https://twitter.com/Merck





  1. So nicely put, Kristina. ‘Frazier’s piercing action is unambiguous.’

  2. Author

    Thank you, Charlie. I was struck and very pleased by how clearly he took a stand on the issue.

  3. Mary Collin August 24, 2017 Reply

    I am proud to be a former employee of Merck and to know that our leadership continues to be principled and strong.

  4. Author

    Thank you, Mary. I agree with your sentiment.

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