American Presidents Share These Key Leadership Qualities
Q&A with instructor John Paul Rollert
For President’s Day in an election year, we at the Spark blog thought it apropos to consider which leadership qualities are key to being president. We reached out to John Paul Rollert, a Harvard Extension School instructor and a doctoral student at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.
Rollert, who teaches Principles and Lessons on Leadership, says that the key to presidential leadership is the ability to define the problems that need to be addressed.
Q: In a January Republican primary debate, Rick Santorum attacked Mitt Romney’s experience, saying that American citizens wanted a commander in chief for president—not a CEO. What do you think he meant by this distinction?
A: Senator Santorum is trying to distinguish between the requirements of successful management and those of strong leadership. Being a good manager—a distinction that includes an aptitude for rigorous analysis, strategic thinking, and organizational efficiency—is necessary for being president, but Senator Santorum thinks that managerial competency, alone, is not sufficient.
I tend to agree. Broadly speaking, good managers solve problems, while successful leaders define them. Ron Paul tells us that the Federal Reserve is a grave danger to economic security. Rick Santorum claims that America is in the grips of a cultural crisis. President Obama says that growing income inequality is undermining the American Dream.
All three men are staking their claim to leadership on which problem needs to be addressed. Solving the problem, the managerial dilemma, comes only after the public has been persuaded as to which of them is right.
Q: What past presidents exemplified the ability to define problems?
A: To some degree, all presidents possess this gift. (It not only comes with the office; it is essential to gaining it.) However, some presidents have a greater talent for defining problems, and convincing others of their definitions, than others.
The most obvious example from recent history is Ronald Reagan. Consider the most famous line from his first inaugural address, “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” This is precisely what I mean by leaders successfully defining problems. Contrary to the post-war consensus, President Reagan argued that the economic malaise of the 1970s would not be solved by government action. On the contrary, it was created by it. You have to agree on the problem before looking for the solutions, in large part, because the solutions, themselves, flow from how the problem is defined.
Q: Has the ubiquity of news coverage, the Internet, and social media changed the work of defining problems?
A: I don’t know that it has changed the work so much as made it much more demanding. FDR was the first president to make routine use of technology to amplify his voice and communicate his message. His famed Fireside Chats brought him directly into the homes of millions of people, allowing him to shape their views of the challenges they faced during the Great Depression and the Second World War.
The effect on the American people is hard to overestimate. It is one thing to occasionally read the full text of a president’s speech in the papers. It is another thing to have him speaking directly to you in the comfort of your home. The sense of intimacy is familiar to us, but consider what it must have been like to those born in the nineteenth century.
Today, the president uses Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Youtube, and e-mail to communicate directly with the American people, in addition to more traditional communication and media outreach efforts. Even by comparison with just a decade ago, the amount of time the president spends trying to communicate his message is truly astonishing.
Q: In this election year, voters have a lot of challenges on their minds: the economy, foreign policy, and the environment (to name a few). Do the complex challenges we face make certain qualities more important than others?
A: I am not so sure. Mitt Romney is certainly hoping that a successful career in private equity will convince people that he has a special understanding of the economic challenges that face us, but I don’t think that people are looking to elect an economist in chief (much less the financier in chief).
There may be a greater premium on competency in such uncertain times, but this is a threshold that both Governor Romney and President Obama quite easily clear. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that the election will be won or lost on the technocratic grounds of managerial know-how.
Q: In the last election both President Obama and Hillary Clinton were criticized for their political inexperience. And several Republican candidates have been similarly criticized during the primaries.
Back in 2008, the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School created a list of questions for candidates that would help voters gauge their leadership qualifications.
Are some leadership capabilities innate—or fairly transferrable? Are there other qualities, such as a capacity to seek new knowledge and adapt, that might balance out inexperience?
A: Students often ask me some variation of this question, and my response is that, while some people have better instincts for leadership than others, for the most part, I think that the traits that make for strong leadership are more the stuff of second nature than first. This is to say, while one may never be a Cicero, that shouldn’t keep her from working hard to become a better public speaker.
In my view, learning to be a leader is much like riding a bike. Bruised knees (or egos) are simply part of the process. Even Lance Armstrong had to fall a few times before he learned to pedal with confidence, and Barack Obama fell pretty hard in 2000 when he lost a disastrous primary challenge to Bobby Rush, a Congressional Democrat from Illinois.
The president has said that his failure was a tremendous education, even if the lesson stung. As with learning to ride a bike, it takes a great deal of courage to pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and try again, but in my estimation, when it comes to learning the ropes of strong leadership, there simply is no other way.
For more blog posts by Rollert, visit the Huffington Post.