Monday, February 11, 2008

Leadership, Not Change, Part 2

11 February 2008
By Peter A. O’Brien

We seek a leader. In seeking a leader it is a good idea to follow the injunction offered by Hippocrates: first do no wrong. As we cull through leaders, whether to run the VFW Hall, our city or town, our business, or our nation, it is always a good idea that we narrow our pool to those who won’t make egregious mistakes. In practical terms, that first sorting is, or should be, those who already have some lesser management and leadership experience.
While this is intended to be more a discussion of leadership then an opportunity to climb onto a political soapbox, the current primary ‘wrestling match’ provides fertile ground for analysis of leadership capabilities.
This is not to say that there is no leadership experience among the candidates for President. But, perhaps there is less than the ads suggest.

Senator Clinton has been in Washington since 1993 – 15 years. She has been in politics since college, yet the only public office she has held has been her Senate seat, a position that, by definition, entails no real leadership. Credit for legislative successes are often said to be based on senator or congressman’s ability to compromise. There is often value in that ability, but great leaders don’t compromise on issues of import. Further, legislators never have to implement their legislation. The executive branch is left trying to make something concrete out of the words. The fact is that Senator Clinton has never had a management or executive position, and has never had to implement any decision. She has no leadership experience. The only leadership she can claim is that she has wrestled with various issues either on the floor or in committee. It is difficult to see how that qualifies anyone to be President.
More to the point, Senator Clinton does not have a broad vision for America, except a few catch all phrases that can be applied to nearly any candidate: improve America’s image abroad, bring more jobs to America, etc. Only in her call for universal health care is she clear and definitive. But, that would hardly qualify as a great, motivating goal.
Senator Obama likewise has a short ‘leadership’ resume. Like Senator Clinton he is a lawyer. Lawyers have a mixed legacy in leadership positions: most have been very poor; Lincoln is a glaring exception to the rule (as he is a glaring exception to many rules; but we aren’t likely to find another Lincoln any time soon). The very thing that makes for a good lawyer normally makes for a poor leader: the ability to see both sides of an argument, the ability to ‘split hairs’ for your client; this is not meant to be pejorative – these are necessary, even vital (if sometimes irritating) skills in a civilized society. Further, good lawyers are ‘action officers,’ they don’t provide guidance and delegate, they lead the actual work – they act. In a very real sense, it is the opposite of leading. Senator Obama also has extensive legislative experience: mostly in Illinois and now for a bit more than a year, in Washington. Nevertheless, that is what he has: legislative experience. Again, to suggest that somehow this represents leadership experience is silly.
Now, is this to discount anyone who has not had experience? No. Great leaders have sprung up with little or no earlier or lesser experience, but they are few and far between. Some will point to President Kennedy, but I will suggest below that they are incorrect.
Senator Obama is a great speaker and communicator, and, over time his vision for America may become more concrete. But, experience in leadership positions provides the seasoning that allows a leader to craft a vision that is achievable. Take away that experience and you have leaders with vague or impossible visions.
As for the other Democrats, Governor Richardson and Dennis Kucinich were the only Democratic Candidates with real leadership experience, the Governor as obviously the governor of New Mexico as well as the Secretary of Energy and Emissary from the President to any number of key leaders around the world. In fact, I would submit that Governor Richardson has a remarkable resume of leadership, clearly the best among the Democrat’s field this year. Congressman Kucinich as both the Mayor of Cleveland and as the President of a marketing firm likewise had an exemplary executive resume. You may like or dislike their particular political positions, but this does represent real leadership.
Of the four major Republican candidates (now down to just two) there is, in fact a wide range of experience.
Governor Huckabee was, of course, the governor of Arkansas, which worked well for the last President. He performed well in that role and can rightly point to that experience, as other governors have (President Clinton was an excellent governor of Arkansas and did have a great executive resume heading into the 1992 elections). Governors may not always make great Presidents, but governors have enough experience to prevent them from making grave mistakes.
Senator McCain also has a sound executive resume. This returns us to an issue mentioned above: did President Kennedy have an executive resume worthy of consideration? I believe he did. Experience under truly extreme conditions, whether they are fairly brief or extended, and being forced to make leadership decisions under that stress, must be considered as the best possible preparation for senior executive positions. LTJG Kennedy faced those kinds of stresses. So did LT McCain. The ability to make proper decisions under that type of stress speaks volumes as to an individual’s readiness to perform in a leadership role.
Senator McCain was also the commanding officer of an A-7 squadron in the Navy and performed superbly in that position. Admittedly, this will look a bit limited to some in as much as it was 30 years ago. However, voters in the US have always weighed military experience much higher in value than might seem proportionate to an outside observer. My guess is that the average voter appreciates that there are some experiences that are simply and indelibly printed on you and one of those is serving in the military, particularly in wartime. That Senator McCain served so well in wartime, his experience carries more weight than it otherwise might. He has served well in the Congress since 1982, but his real leadership experience comes from his service while in uniform.
Governor Romney, now out of the race, also has an extensive leadership resume as governor of Massachusetts, president of a successful corporation and director of the Salt Lake Olympics. As with Governor Richardson on the Democrat’s side, Governor Romney has the best executive resume of the Republican candidates, and arguably the best of any of the candidates.
Mayor Giuliani, also out of the race, likewise has a superb executive resume, and anyone who has been through New York more than once over the past 20 years, and can compare before and after Rudy, will have a real appreciation for his accomplishments. His ability to manage a huge problem and turn that city around is the best possible resume he could ever have. His performance after September 11th is remarkable and we can all thank God that Giuliani was there. And I remain a Red Sox fan.
Congressman Ron Paul has performed well and honorably in Congress, but, as with Senators Clinton and Obama, has no executive experience to speak of. He has the additional fact of being a physician to contend with. Physicians, like lawyers, are very much ‘action’ oriented, though they have some experience in delegation and in acting under extreme pressure.

Where does all this lead us? What is missing from most of these figures?
The answer is the sine qua non of real leadership: a vision. Leadership, real leadership, requires that the leader have a clear goal in mind, that is, a vision of the future, and enough intellect and imagination to make that vision into something concrete enough that people can ‘buy into it.’
With the exception of one candidate – Senator McCain - who keeps calling for victory, which is a concrete, definable and moving vision, the candidates have studiously avoided clearly stating what their goals are, what they want the US to look like in 5, 10 or 20 years, and what specifically they will do to make that happen. That’s not leadership.
Certainly, voters have voted for short term benefits in the past, and may well do so again (vote for a candidate who promises an entitlement program, for example), but that is neither ‘great’ nor visionary. The United States has, over the past 232 years moved from one great vision to another. We are now seemingly floundering without one. An amorphously defined ‘healthy economy’ does not suffice. Americans want a goal worthy of our heritage. The only goal, the only vision being offered right now that is both worthy of America and concrete is victory.


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