Two weeks ago, on 60 Minutes, Mitt Romney and President Obama were each asked, “what are the essential qualities of a leader.” Both responded with remarks about a personal vision, which is important but secondary. Their answers provide clues to past triumphs and troubles in the Obama Presidency, and to the tragic course which a Romney Presidency would take. Allow me to explain.
The most essential quality of a great leader is an ability to recruit and effectively manage outstanding people, including his lieutenants. This conclusion was reached long ago by others besides me. For example, in The True Believer, Eric Hoffer says: “The most decisive (quality) for the effectiveness of a mass movement leader (is)… above all, the ability to evoke fervent devotion in a group of able lieutenants” (p 115). The majority of leaders settle for mediocre and incompetent loyalists because they are easier to manage during a crisis.
Three decades ago, while CEO of Pro-Log, I wrote A Framework for Managing. It describes how quality people are the most strategic and important resources for sustained success and profits are the most tactical. It also explains that subordinates are a small subset of the people whom a top executive must recruit and manage. A chart from that essay is shown in Fig. 1.
No individual, particularly in politics, business or sports can lead by themselves. A college football coach cannot accept any old group of players and assistant coaches to develop a winning team; he must recruit and manage excellent people, including athletic directors and alumni. Complex systems, like football teams, companies or governments, require a network of capable lieutenants who provide information and advice, develop scenarios, and execute plans in specific specialties. A great leader attracts, selects, and supports the most qualified people available, even those who don’t fully accept his vision or exhibit blind loyalty to his cause. A President who accepts retreads or limits himself to docile loyalists eventually brings disaster. George Bush the younger comes to mind. (By the way, being the “great decider” which Bush touted as important is, at best, a tertiary quality.)
Abraham Lincoln understood the principles of great leadership. His Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Proclamation generated public support for a ghastly and drawn-out war. He recruited many of his former adversaries into his cabinet because they were some of the best available people. (Read Doris Goodwin’s excellent book about Lincoln: A Team of Rivals) Because of Lincoln’s leadership skills they supported and enabled him; not as docile plow horses but as a team of high-spirited thoroughbreds.
Lincoln’s biggest failure was to accept General George McClellan as leader of the Army of the Potomac. It’s hard to fault Lincoln. George McClellan had all the credentials, the loyalty of the troops, and the obvious alternatives were even worse. However, McClellan’s early disasters in the field demonstrated that he lacked both the skill and the stomach to do what had to be done. Lincoln went through several “credentialed” but incompetent generals while the war dragged on until, in desperation, he settled on Grant and Sherman. These deeply flawed men had won promotions in the field and had racked up the earliest Union victories in the western campaign. (Which is, by the way a clue about how to select excellent people: look for people who have succeeded in similar, but more limited, circumstances and downplay other credentials and personal flaws. Don’t select or promote people based on personal loyalty or loyalty to the cause.)
Like President Lincoln, President Obama has mixed record for selecting lieutenants; which is to be expected. The reality is that even the best leaders initially choose a mixture of winners, losers, and placeholders. Finding the best people takes time as well as talents that few, if any people possess. It’s as tough to bat 500 in selecting the most competent people as it is to bat 500 in baseball; which is why relentless pruning and replacing is also part of the job. However, unlike Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt with his fireside chats, he has done a tepid job managing the support of his party or of the American Public.
To his credit President Obama selected Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State and developed a healthy and productive working relationship with this former adversary. He kept a skilled, but Republican, Robert Gates as his Secretary of Defense and Leon Panetta to head the CIA. He selected Joe Biden as his running mate. Biden is an outspoken but knowledgeable and honest person, who provides connections to Congress and is a credible backup President. These people, and others, have served him well and have freely given him advice which he has often ignored, but always respected.
Unfortunately, his economic team was not well chosen. He appointed a bunch of placeholders from the Clinton administration; a logical, but unfortunate decision in the midst of an economic crisis. In particular he chose to saddle himself with Larry Summers as his chief financial advisor. Summers is a mediocre, misogynist with Wall Street credentials; an economic George McClellan.
In 2008, Summers blocked vital evidence from economists like Paul Krugman that the stimulus needed to be at least $1.3 trillion. The President chose a $787 billion package. It was enough to stabilize a collapsing economy, but insufficient to snap it out of a recession. Ultimately, this crucial mistake is President Obama’s responsibility. However it is largely the result of settling for mediocre economic advisors with hang-ups and feigned fealty.
This brings me to Mitt Romney. His leadership at Bain Capital was that of a hack focused on profits instead of an entrepreneur skilled with people. His foreign policy advisors are retreaded neoconservative loyalists, often referred to as chicken hawks, who got us into two debilitating wars in the Middle East. They include Condoleezza Rice from the Bush Administration. His economic advisors are also the Bush loyalists (like Grover Norquist) who weakened the nation with budget deficits, deregulation and a recession. He selected Paul Ryan as VP, a half-step up from Sarah Palin in intelligence and education, but also lacking the maturity or integrity to lead the nation. As a Congressman during the Bush era, Paul Ryan voted for all the economy weakening bills and budgets. He also signed Grover Norquist’s Pledge of Mass Destruction, which, to my mind, makes him unfit to deal with any financial crisis. Ryan’s votes to add $5 trillion to the budget deficit during the Bush Presidency and his role in blocking the 2011 budget compromise between the President and John Boehner were economically destructive, but consistent with Norquist’s Pledge.