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Leadership: From the White House to Your House

April 13, 2012

With a presidential election year underway, Linkage’s Leadership Academy alum Michael Eric Siegel is contributing to a three-piece series on presidential leadership.

If you find the questions routinely asked of our presidential candidates to be insufficient for assessing their potential ability to lead the nation, I can provide better ones based on my studies of the leadership styles of five of our most recent presidents. And the questions I offer below can also be used to ascertain leadership acumen in non-White House settings as well.

Instead of focusing on whether a presidential candidate spent great sums of money purchasing jewelry for his third wife or strapped a dog to the top of his vehicle on a family vacation, I suggest the following questions for citizens and journalists. I believe that the candidates ability to answer these questions, in addition to evidence of how they have “answered” them in practice, provide more reliable guidance to judge candidates’ leadership potential in the White House.

1. Vision/Purpose. Does the candidate embrace a strong vision or compelling view of the nation’s future? Does the candidate seem to stand for something? Has the candidate demonstrated a consistent, though not overly rigid, commitment to a set of principles that could energize his White House, as Ronald Reagan did; or does he seem to stand for everything but believe in nothing, as Carter was frequently accused of doing? Is the candidate able to present an image of the nation’s future in a compelling manner, so voters know not only what he is against but what he stands for? Clinton campaigned on the basis of being a “New Democrat,” eschewing the outdated orthodoxies of the New Deal and Great Society, and attracted great support for a Democratic Party that could take the ideas of deficit reduction seriously and collaboration with business seriously. By contrast, Rick Perry’s “vision” of making government “inconsequential” seems unimpressive. Does the person seem to comprehend the difference between a compelling vision and an obsession? Was George W. Bush’s “vision” of fighting the terrorists, which seemed highly potent in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, transformed into an obsession later in his term with the Iraq war and beyond?

2. Strategy/Execution. Does the candidate comprehend or seem to possess the specific political skills needed to translate vision into reality? Former NY Governor Mario Cuomo likes to say, “You can campaign in poetry but you must govern in prose,” and management analyst Peter Block says, “We become political the moment we try and translate vision into reality.” Does the candidate understand the critical importance of surrounding himself with highly qualified aids—some of whom need to be Washington insiders—who can work effectively with Congress to bring the president’s ideas and programs to fruition? It is one thing to campaign as an “outsider” and quite another to govern as one. Does the person have a track record of surrounding himself (or herself) with professionals as opposed to friends?

The difference was poignantly illustrated by George W. Bush’s first chief of staff, Andrew Card, who, when he resigned his position said, “I’m so glad I’m leaving the White house, because now I can be George’s friend again.” The president does not need friends in the White House; he needs what author Ira Chaleff calls “courageous followers,” professionals who have the confidence and tenacity to challenge a president when needed. Finally, does the candidate have an ability to articulate a focused, limited agenda? Reagan’s focus on only three or four major policy initiatives during his early years in the White House led to his tremendous legislative victories, while Carter’s expansive agenda (summarized to his domestic policy adviser in an “A-Z” list, abortion to Zaire) mitigated his ability to get much done.

Success in the White House is tied to the president’s ability to chart a clear vision or propose that can energize his party, the citizenry, and Congress (vision); his capacity to select talented people for his staff, especially those who comprehend the nuances of working effectively with Congress (execution); his attention to designing a management structure in the White House and cabinet agencies that will faithfully execute the president’s policies and programs (management); and his ease and comfort with decision-making, including skill in listening to multiple viewpoints but announcing clear and unambiguous decisions (decision-making).

I will discuss items three and four in a future blog post. Stay tuned and leave me your feedback below.
Michael Eric Siegel, Ph.D. is a Senior Training Specialist at The Federal Judicial Center, Washington, DC, and an adjunct professor of Government at The American and Johns Hopkins Universities. He is the author of a recently published book, The President as Leader (Pearson Education, Inc, 2012.)

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