Wanted: A President Who Can Lead During a Time of ‘Daunting’ Challenges

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This is the third in a series of articles running up to the November election that consider the qualifications, and various economic and fiscal proposals, of the two candidates for president: Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain.

The next president has a big to-do list: Lead a nation that is at war in two countries, eliminate or make a big dent in the federal budget deficit, avert the collapse of the financial system and manage the tsunami of entitlement obligations owed to retiring baby boomers.

Wharton professor Mike Useem discusses the qualities of effective presidential leadership

David Gergen — political commentator, advisor to four presidents and current director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government — told a Wharton audience this summer that “the challenges facing the next president will be the most daunting facing any president of our lifetime. There have been immense problems building up for a long time and crying out for solutions, and time is not on our side.” Since then, with the collapse of several financial institutions that provide the underpinnings of the global economy, the challenges have become even greater.

“The job of the person who walks into that office on January 21, 2009, will be as hard as any job any person has ever had,” says Wharton management professor Michael Useem, who directs the school’s Center for Leadership and Change Management. The difficulty of the task will require a president with extraordinary managerial and cognitive abilities, he and other Wharton faculty suggest.

So, how does a voter recognize those qualities? Faculty at Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania have many ideas about which leadership traits will be generally most important — but they also acknowledge that in some cases, these qualities can vary in particular circumstances. Winston Churchill, for example, had a checkered political career in peace time but proved enormously successful as a wartime leader.

“It’s not easy to say what you most need, given that you need a number of things,” suggests Sidney Winter, a Wharton professor emeritus of management whose career included stints as chief economist of the U.S. General Accounting Office during the first Bush Administration and member of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Kennedy Administration. In fact, Winter says, it’s usually not clear until afterwards which traits were most important.

However, one quality that is high on most professors’ lists is the ability to persuade. Unlike the CEO of a large business, the president has surprisingly limited leverage. As Katherine Klein, a professor of management, puts it: “You don’t employ the Congress, so you can’t fire them.”

Richard Neustadt, in his 1960 book Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, held that the presidency was actual a fairly weak position, whose power rested almost entirely on the power to persuade the different branches of government to act. He quotes Truman on the eve of Eisenhower’s inauguration in 1952, speculating on the term to come: “He will sit there, and he will say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ and nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the army.”

Whatever Eisenhower had to learn about running the government — although it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t in fact know a few things about bureaucratic infighting — he did possess another trait that some commentators would like to see in the new president: the ability to radiate a sense of calm and competence. Winter and others describe “the ability to keep cool under pressure” as a key trait for the next president.

Open Minded and Smart

Most of the faculty interviewed also want to see someone who is smart and open minded. “You would like somebody for starters who’s ferociously intelligent, who can really just amass a set of facts. I think you want somebody who, at the same time he’s ferociously intelligent, is receptive to experts from all sides,” Klein says.

But one professor is less sure about the importance of intelligence. “You would expect an academic would say a president’s got to be smart, but it turns out that if you look at the record, some of our best presidents have been smart and some have not been,” says Gerald Faulhaber, a professor emeritus of business and public policy who served as chief economist of the Federal Communications Commission in 2000-2001.

Successful presidents tend to be remembered as intelligent, although they may not be seen that way during their tenure. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, was famously described by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1933 as “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.”  

Faulhaber does believe, however, that a successful leader should have a strong ability to resist temptation. “The great temptation for all humanity is sex and drugs,” Faulhaber says. This can be even stronger for politicians, even presidents, he adds, because the availability is so much higher. Clinton, for example, was on his way to being an extremely well-regarded president when the Lewinsky scandal hit. “He was a very smart guy … and he was just laid low.”

Many indicated that open-mindedness is important. “I would think both in the context of the increasingly complex foreign relations that we have and the situation in financial markets — which is utterly beyond the experience of most professional politicians and people with backgrounds in the law and the ordinary professions — that a willingness to listen thoughtfully, and ask probing questions… would be of the first importance,” says Wharton management professor Daniel M. G. Raff. “The last thing the country needs is someone who acts impulsively on the basis of highly simplified, if not irrelevant, images of how the world works.”

An awareness that he or she lives within a bubble — of security and information — and an impatience with that bubble, is another important trait. The most successful presidents have had channels of information that led deep within the government, past the layer of political appointees, Winter says. He remembers a time, for instance, when Kennedy called a colleague on the staff of the Council of Economic Advisors to ask him directly about his economic forecast.

The best presidents also seem to take an adversarial approach to decision-making, according to Winter. Pitching different points of view against each other is a good way to understand several sides of the same issue. Clinton was reportedly extremely adept at this kind of openly contentious decision making, Winter says. In deciding to make deficit reduction and the North American Free Trade Agreements key priorities, for example, Clinton reportedly listened to arguments on both sides, and then bucked the liberal wing of his party to push both programs through.

Winter says that Franklin Roosevelt, too, had a reputation for learning through such adversarial means. Winter recalls a professor he studied with who had worked in Roosevelt’s administration saying that he thought Roosevelt deliberately assigned problems to more than one person or more than one agency. “The resulting interagency squabble was not something that Roosevelt was inclined to deplore,” he says. Roosevelt calculated that it would bring the problem to the surface, along with several contending approaches, about which he could then make a final decision.

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management, agrees that the ability to hear diverse points of view is important. If a leader is not careful to set up an environment where the free expression of different points of view is encouraged — whether that leader is in the corner office or the White House — decisions can end up being made by “group think,” leaving him or her at risk of overlooking important facts and new approaches to problems, Cappelli says.

Considering Multiple Views

This kind of adversarial approach also demands a lot of the president, because it tends to make very clear just how hard the decisions are, Winter says. “The decisiveness of the individual is challenged precisely by trying to get all the facts and viewpoints out on the table…. You need someone who can actually handle the burden of walking out of that meeting and weighing those views,” he adds. Not every president has liked this kind of approach. “Give me a one-handed economist!” Truman once moaned, because all his economists said, “on the one hand and on the other hand.”

One of Truman’s advisors, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, once noted that he thought the role of the advisor was not to offer a variety of different approaches but to give the president confidence in his decision, according to Winter.

A certain gravitas may also be an advantage. According to Faulhaber, McCain may have the edge in that regard, and not just because of his long U.S. Senate career, but because foreign leaders might see the younger Obama as a lightweight, in the same way that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to take advantage of a young — and presumably inexperienced — John Kennedy. It was an impression that led directly to Khrushchev’s decision to move missiles to Cuba, which then precipitated the Cuban missile crisis. That wouldn’t happen with McCain, Faulhaber says, adding that “People think he’s a little crazy.” And in game theory, not knowing exactly what your opponent might do can be an advantage. “If I think my opponent’s crazy, that changes the game and it changes it to his benefit.”

Ideally, the next president will inspire the public and know also how to get things done, says Mary Frances Berry, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and former chairwoman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. However, it’s rare to find both qualities at once, she adds, noting that Reagan was inspirational and good at getting his measures through Congress, but lacked executive experience. Eisenhower, on the other hand, had executive experience, but not the charisma.  In modern times, Berry believes, only Franklin Roosevelt was “both inspirational and had a great awareness of how the government operated.”

Sometimes academic interests have a tendency to follow society’s wishes or preoccupations, Klein notes, and a reading of the academic literature on managerial leaders suggests that the public’s obsession with charismatic leadership that began in the Reagan era may now be drawing to a close. “My sense is that has run its course.” Reagan may have made standing tall and going it alone look attractive, Klein says. “It looked like it worked — didn’t the Berlin Wall fall?” But today’s problems may not be suited for a “‘lone cowboy.” When the problem is internal, “it does call for a different model of what we want in a leader.”

What might that new model leader look like?

“I think there’s a pretty clear consensus that somebody who can compromise and somebody who can find ways to find common ground across competing positions can be pretty important going forward,” says Cappelli. Citing the September 30 defeat of the bank bailout proposal in the House, he says that the ability to negotiate and put a deal together is suddenly likely to be looked at as a very important skill.

“Given our recent experiences as a people, we need someone who is aggressive at taking action but at the same time willing to listen to people who disagree, who have different voices, and people who have experience — but not necessarily to rely on their experience to the exclusion of everything else,” Berry says. What we really need now, Berry adds, is someone who can inspire the people and who, at the same time, knows how government works and how to get things done. “We need an FDR. That’s what we need.”

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