Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
Maybe Neither Senator is Qualified to be a CEO?
As the CEO of the White House and the nation, being POTUS – insiders’ acronym for President of the United States – may be the toughest executive job in the world. The stakes are high, the scope is vast, the scrutiny intense, the criticism constant. As Dwight Eisenhower warned John Kennedy, only the impossible decisions end up on the president’s desk.
As an academic, with limited managerial experience, I am conscious of the executive skills I lack, but only have an inkling of all that I do not know. Those of us who have never budgeted, hired or fired, supervised multiple levels below us in a bureaucracy, are lucky. We can focus more directly on fulfilling our own tasks independently and (hopefully) responsibly. But a president not only has to manage the country, the president also has to run the ever-larger White House and the gargantuan federal bureaucracy.
Many talented politicians in the Oval Office have committed rookie mistakes most experienced CEOs would have avoided. Lyndon Johnson intimidated and humiliated staffers, discouraging them from delivering bad news, alternative perspectives, the essential reality-check leaders need. Rather than inspiring his aides, Richard Nixon shared and fed their fears, creating a White House of co-conspirators some of whom ultimately betrayed each other – and him. Jimmy Carter interrupted his presidency to consult experts about the country’s direction at Camp David, unaware that displaying such weakness undermined Americans’ faith in him. Ronald Reagan allowed staffers to run a rogue Iran-Contra operation, with his wink-wink, nudge-nudge consent but without his supervision. And George W. Bush proved that loyalty cannot be blind; it must be tempered by a focus on results. Had Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld earlier, the mess in Iraq might have been easier to clean up, and Bush might have had more Republican legislators supporting him in Congress.
Fortunately, there are inspiring models for the Senators to study too. America’s greatest chief executives were visionary executives who understood that the delicate dance of democracy usually requires a light but sure touch. Like a large, sprawling corporation, a country needs a leader to set a tone, chart a course, put out fires, and make the tough calls. A successful president, like a successful CEO, has to consider followers’ morale among the many other factors that shape decision-making. Center-seeking, consensus-building, help foster a sense of camaraderie and a commitment to a broader mission necessary for group success. And knowing what to avoid is often as important as knowing what to embrace. Just as Al Gore teaches about minimizing our carbon footprints, successful executives minimize their toxic footprints, leaving a legacy of good feeling not bad faith.
A center-seeking CEO and POTUS will remember George Washington’s lesson that civility is contagious, as the father of our country spent much of his tenure managing squabbling subordinates, trying to keep them focused on “our common cause” not their conflicting agendas. A moderate CEO and POTUS will mimic Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, noting that Lincoln positioned the country to abolish slavery eventually – after the Civil War -- by first keeping the union united and inviolable. Similarly, great leaders consolidate gains that are attainable while stubbornly seeking ever loftier goals. An effective CEO and POTUS will master Franklin Roosevelt’s skills, infusing a sense of mission throughout the bureaucracy, by articulating the vision and by occasionally leapfrogging down through the chain of command to quiz lower-level managers about the facts on the ground.
Moreover, as Barack Obama has argued, running a presidential campaign requires considerable executive skill. There are budgets to be drawn and approved, subordinates to be supervised, strategies to be set. Obama emphasizes this because even Republicans would acknowledge that Obama’s campaign has been far smoother, reflecting remarkable discipline in defeating the Clinton machine in the spring, and being so brilliant run this fall.
McCain’s people make a different argument, that legislative consensus-building and symbolic tone-setting are essential presidential skills. McCain honed these skills in the Senate. He and his supporters claim that he understands the challenge of leading a nation more than any governor or corporate CEO could.
Ultimately, great leadership in the White House and in corporate headquarters is not formulaic. There is no recipe for good judgment, for knowing when to hold and when to fold. But our leaders can learn from the past how others built cultures of cooperation and civility that flourished. And like it or not, come January 20, one of these Senators is slated to be sworn in as President. The gray hairs that emerged on the heads of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter suggest that nothing quite prepares anyone for the considerable tensions and challenges of this high stakes office.