Beyond Quotable Zingers to Qualified Leaders

There you go again. ~Ronald Reagan, 1980

Here we go again, heading into a presidential campaign that is being framed in ways least helpful to people choosing the person who will have to lead a diverse country in a rapidly changing world.

Already there are stories identifying ‘front-runners,’ even though no potential Democratic candidate has more than 30 percent support. If these early polls were predictive, the 2008 race would have been between Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton. These stories are less about helping voters discern differences and more about satisfying a desire for conflict and drama. They serve less to inform voters about candidates’ qualifications and more to create narratives of underdogs and expectations of inevitability.

You’re likable enough, Hillary. No doubt about it. ~Barack Obama, 2008

Even if you argue that the horse race aspects of a presidential campaign are important, such news stories focus voters on the election day event rather than help voters clarify how the candidate will function as president for the four years that follow. The time and space devoted to horse race reporting is time and space not devoted to deep dives into the candidates’ leadership capacity.

As a leadership scholar and consultant, I’ve traveled throughout Oregon facilitating discussions of leadership with community groups. I know two things: people’s views on what constitutes “leadership” vary greatly, and the qualities they believe a leader should possess are so vast that it is impossible for a single person to have them all. People say they want a leader who is decisive and collaborative, intelligent and down-to-earth, self-confident and humble. Rarely do people I talk to say charisma is an essential leadership quality, although they sometimes say inspirational. They never say likable. No one has ever said: Someone I’d like to have a beer with.

Leadership is more than a bundle of personality traits and learned strategies. It requires that a person know themself, know their own strengths and limitations, and be both strong and humble enough to compensate for them. Leadership is not the same as power and is not the same as ethics, but leaders must act with an understanding of both.

Where’s the beef? ~Walter Mondale, 1984

The depth of knowledge on a broad range of topics that a president must have in order to make decisions that affect the lives of Americans, the fate of people around the world, and the future of the planet, means that we need to look for qualities like the ability to put together an effective team and the capacity to evaluate conflicting information and recommendations. We need someone who builds trust by telling us the hard truths about tough choices, and who is willing to be accountable when they make mistakes.

But when there is serious questioning of the candidates — as distinct from excessive focus on gaffes that are clearly the result of fatigue or speculation about whether facial tics reveal deeper health issues — it tends to focus on specific policy in a way that suggests problems are simple and solutions achieved through the president’s force of will: “How would you bring manufacturing jobs back to the Rust Belt?” “How would you stop North Korea’s nuclear arms development?” No wonder our current president, who seems to lack a basic understanding of the separation of powers outlined in the Constitution, thinks that he can govern by issuing executive orders and bullying Congress into actualizing his campaign promises.

I don’t recall anyone in the 2000 presidential campaign asking the candidates how they would respond to a terrorist attack on American soil. In 2016, the candidates’ zingers about which of them was Putin’s puppet became headlines and sound bites but did not lead to serious questioning of how they would counter infiltration of voter registration rolls and social media sites by a foreign government determined to influence the election.

Too often, the biggest challenges a president faces are unpredictable. In those moments, we need someone whose values and ethical system we can trust to guide them. We need to feel confident that the president has put together a highly competent team with the necessary expertise. We need to trust that the president can assimilate the information needed to make a decision and not rely totally on their ‘gut’ or on polls among their ‘base.’

Senator, You’re no Jack Kennedy. ~Lloyd Bentsen, 1988

We can’t know how anyone will behave under pressure — when a foreign power places missiles close to our shores, kidnaps or attacks diplomats, or escalates a nuclear arms race. But we can look to evidence from the candidates’ pasts that tell us whether they’re someone we can rely on. How have they demonstrated maturity? Have they been comfortable with people on their teams who are smarter than they are? How have they wielded power?

The last question is vital in a world in which more and more governments around the world are moving away from democracy, and our own country has elevated someone who has declared the news media to be “enemies of the people” and elected state governments that have tried to suppress voting. Yet I can’t recall a candidate being questioned about how they view the power of the presidency.

White papers and twelve-point plans, cleverly named initiatives and gaffes have a place in campaign coverage, but even then, they need to be woven into the larger question about how effective the candidate’s been at getting similar plans and initiatives enacted, what we know about their intelligence and integrity, their willingness to laugh at themselves but not at others.

The president, after all, is a human being with anger that can be triggered, hurts from childhood, desire to please and be pleased. They will live with unbelievable pressure to make the right decision, and they inevitably will make costly mistakes. They will make some mistakes for understandable reasons and some for reasons that are hard to forgive. They also will do the right thing in ways that look wrong to those of us who don’t have all the facts. The field of philosophy has given us a variety of ethical systems — some that say the end justifies the means, some that say we must act for the common good. But while I’ve heard candidates asked whether they wear boxers or briefs, and I’ve heard candidates talk about their faith, I’ve heard far too little about the ethical system that guides them.

In an ideal world, reporters who cover the candidates, who question them in televised debates, would be exploring these questions. But as citizens, we have to be the ones demanding that these questions be asked. We have to be the ones willing to look beyond whether a candidate checks the policy boxes important to us and make sure they also check the boxes that demonstrate their leadership capacity.