Leadership IQ and the race for the White House


While Barack Obama is yet to fully deliver on his considerable leadership promise, Mitt Romney — for all his history of running things and running for things — remains clueless about what genuine political leadership is all about. (Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Steven Pearlstein
Columnist September 8, 2012

It’s been an exciting two weeks of speeches and commentary and fascinating political theater, but I come away from these artfully staged-managed party conventions with a strong sense that we’re still suffering from a leadership gap.

So, let me put it right out there: While Barack Obama is yet to fully deliver on his considerable leadership promise, Mitt Romney — for all his history of running things and running for things — remains clueless about what genuine political leadership is all about.

Steven Pearlstein is a business and economics columnist who writes about local, national and international topics. View Archive

As best I can, I’m trying to keep my ideology and policy preferences out of this analysis. Instead, the focus is on what we have learned about leadership from longtime students of the subject such as Warren Bennis, Bill George, Mike Useem, Tom Peters, Jim Collins, Howard Gardiner, Mike Maccoby and Marty Linsky, many of whom are regular contributors to The Post’s On Leadership Web site.

From them, we know that the essential elements of successful leadership are authenticity and truthfulness, an unwavering set of core values, strong personal ethics, a passion for a larger purpose outside of yourself, the ability to communicate an inspiring vision, empathy and emotional intelligence, persistence, self-discipline and a boldness that sometimes borders on narcissism.

What leadership — particularly political leadership — is not is managerial competence, the ability to analyze a problem and manage people and processes in order to solve it. Starting a highly profitable private-equity firm and rescuing the Salt Lake City Olympics are significant achievements, but they are not necessarily evidence of great leadership. These were successes in which the priorities and parameters were essentially set by others, in environments in which Romney could exercise a considerable degree of top-down control.

Indeed, when he tried to bring his CEO skill-set to governing Massachusetts, Romney quickly discovered the difference between the things he could accomplish on his own authority and those that required changing the political environment or working with legislators or interest groups that were not inclined to take direction. It was largely out of frustration with the latter that he decided, only two years into his first term, to turn his focus from governing the state to running for president. And by the time he left office, his approval rating among Bay State voters had slipped below 40 percent and has been falling ever since.

Which brings us to the even bigger problem of Romney’s stunning lack of authenticity.

This manifests itself in the contrast between the socially awkward man we see in public and the funny, charming man attested to by friends and family.

It manifests itself in the contrast between the incredible generosity and care he has taken with people who he knows or meets in person and the striking insensitivity he shows to nameless, faceless people he has laid off from companies he first stripped of their equity, or longtime immigrants he proposes to deport en masse, or people who are poor and sick that he is willing to demonize before letting slip through the economic safety net.

Most of all, this lack of authenticity manifests itself in his reinvention from centrist and pragmatic Massachusetts Republican into a dogmatic social and economic conservative, totally disavowing explicit positions on abortion, gay rights, immigration, the bank bailout, environmental regulation and, of course, the health reform in Massachusetts that was once his signature political achievement. On the Romney political compass, it turns out that there is no True North.

Phony is the word that keeps coming to mind. Here’s a guy who tries to pass himself off to gun owners as a lifelong hunter because of a handful of outings. To show voters that he’s just a regular guy, he shows up without a hair out of place in casual clothes with freshly pressed creases. Even his boast about his entrepreneurial risk-taking turns out to be a stretch: According to biographers Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, Romney was promised that if things didn’t work out with Bain Capital, he could get his old job back at Bain Consulting, including all the raises and bonuses he would have received and a cover story to paper over any hint of failure.

A passion for a cause outside of his own ambition? What was striking about Romney’s acceptance speech last month was that he couldn’t articulate one that was even remotely convincing. Instead, this son of a wealthy industrialist with law and business degrees from Harvard tried to pass himself off as the striving son of a penniless Mexican immigrant whose lifelong passion has been to ensure that others will have the chance to realize the American dream. Oh, and yes, Romney also wanted us to know that he really, really wanted President Obama to succeed in office and, like other Americans, is heartbroken that he hasn’t.

One reason government works in America is because 95 percent of Americans pay pretty much what they think they owe in taxes. But in Romney we have a presidential candidate who hides hundreds of million of dollars in overseas havens that make it possible for him to avoid paying the same taxes as if he had kept his money at home. It’s all perfectly legal, but that hardly makes it right or ethical. What kind of example does that set for the country he now thinks he is entitled to lead?

Despite his obvious intelligence, self-discipline and managerial ability, by any honest measure Mitt Romney fails the leadership test.

The same cannot be said of President Obama. Whether you subscribe to them or not, he has a vision, a set of core values, a passion for a cause beyond himself. These were all outlined in his best-selling books, articulated in his campaign and embraced once in office. As president, he has sometimes shown courage and persistence in pursuing unpopular initiatives, along with that boldness that sometimes borders on narcissism. His empathy for people seems genuine. His public persona seems authentic and well-integrated with who he really is.

I would argue that it was this leadership potential, more than any national consensus around his policies, that explains why Obama was elected in the first place — that, along with the managerial talent and strategic sense to run a brilliant campaign. Since then, he has strengthened his leadership bona fides by pushing through a giant economic stimulus bill, a rescue of the auto industry, sweeping health-care and financial regulatory reforms, along with ending the war in Iraq — all of it in the face of obstinate Republican opposition in Congress.

Where he has fallen short of his leadership promise, however, is by failing to tell the hard truths (Romney is not better) and making good on his promise to change the way business is done in Washington.

It began when he broke his pledge to limit his campaign spending and rely on public financing rather than big donations from Wall Street and Hollywood. It continued with his decision not to veto a supplemental appropriations bill that he inherited, which was larded with congressional pork. It took root when he failed to embrace the recommendation of his own deficit-reduction commission out of fear that its budget cuts would alienate key Democratic constituencies. And it manifests itself in the administration’s refusal to aggressively defend its legislative achievements in the face of voter disenchantment and relentless Republican attacks.

With the electoral drubbing that his party took in November 2010 and the sharp decline in his own poll numbers, Obama stopped being a leader with a passion for a larger purpose outside of himself. He became just another politician focused on his own reelection, pandering to the public and key constituencies, refusing to come clean about the sacrifices that would be required while demonizing Republicans with the same relentless advertising based on exaggeration and half-truths that Republicans had used so successfully against him.

There was a lot of truth and wisdom in what Joe Biden said in his acceptance speech the other night, but there was one line he surely knew was not true — that in the Obama White House, politics is the last thing to be considered in policy decisions. It was one of those white lies that elected officials like to tell and nobody really believes, but the dramatic sincerity with which it was delivered was a good indication that the Obama team is now determined simply to win at the Washington game rather than change it.

The clever conceit behind this strategy is that this is the only viable one for winning reelection — and that after November, Obama will be free to return to his vision and demonstrate the leadership of which he is capable.

On the first point, my guess is that sticking to a leadership strategy based on authenticity, core values and courageous truth-telling would have been the better antidote to 8 percent unemployment and voter cynicism. It also would have been a surer way to expose that Mitt Romney is smaller than the job he aspires to.

On the second, I’d be skeptical that anyone who wins office by playing the old Washington political game will have the power — let alone the instinct — to change it.

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