Jon Huntsman’s best leadership trait

January 12, 2012

The following is part of a series of On Leadership profiles exploring the best leadership traits of each of the candidates in the GOP field. Our intention is to provide a debater's argument for each of the Republican hopeful's leadership strengths rather than examine the pros and cons of his overall leadership style. Click here for a full introduction to the series and links to the other candidates’ pieces.

“I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first,” GOP candidate Jon Huntsman said to thunderous applause during the Jan. 8 Republican debate. “He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy.”

The newsworthy moment—one of the few the former ambassador to China has had—may have been a last ditch effort in Huntsman’s go-for-broke strategy to woo New Hampshire’s independents. And the “country first” mantra he’s finally woken up to may be too little, too late.

But the moment encapsulated Huntsman’s above-the-fray leadership style. The candidate perhaps best known for tweeting “call me crazy” for believing in climate change is unafraid of standing out from the pack. In one of his first press conferences as a candidate, he would not call himself a conservative, saying that he did not like political labels. He doesn’t sign pledges. And now he is telling anyone who will listen that he chose to serve under Obama because he puts larger goals ahead of party and ideology.

The conventional wisdom on Huntsman’s leadership appeal is that his moderate, diplomatic temperament sets him apart from a field of candidates who have been called everything from “rhetorical bomb throwers” to “hyperactive political pugilists.” In an era of partisanship, extreme political divisiveness and utter dysfunction in Washington, a candidate who has crossed the political aisle might be the one guy who, as president, could help to bridge that same divide. Even if Huntsman is not nearly as moderate, policy-wise, as he has been cast—the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page, for instance, has called his tax plan “better than anything so far from the GOP Presidential field”—his purported efforts to run a civil campaign are a welcome alternative to many.

There is plenty of truth in that wisdom, but it’s only part of the story. Huntsman’s supporters are looking for bridge-builders, yes. But they’re also responding to someone who has one of the most fundamental of leadership traits: The fortitude to stand on the other side of the stage and be different from many in the pack. Even if independent thinking is not a great quality for political primaries, it is a good quality for leaders.

Jena McGregor writes the Post Leadership blog for the Washington Post.

Read more in this series:

Ron Paul’s best leadership trait

Rick Santorum’s best leadership trait

Newt Gingrich’s best leadership trait

Mitt Romney’s best leadership trait

Rick Perry’s best leadership trait

Jon Huntsman’s best leadership trait

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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