A leadership case for Newt Gingrich, performed in the Socratic method
By Alan Webber,
This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on Newt Gingrich’s leadership style.
Teacher: Okay class, settle down! This is Leadership 101 and today’s topic is ‘The leadership lessons of Newt Gingrich.’
If you’ve been doing your homework, you know that former Speaker Gingrich is leading in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. This, despite some obvious, um, problems. Some in his personal life in the past. Some from his political pronouncements in the present.
So the question is, what can we learn about leadership from Mr. Gingrich? And since this is such a, um, challenging subject, we’re going to class-source this one. Just say whatever comes into your head. We’ll imitate Mr. Gingrich.
Boy in jacket and tie: He looks the part. He’s got that big head of hair and that craggy face and he knows how to dress and stand and talk like a leader. He can play the part. Gingrich passes the ‘hypothetical’ test: Voters can imagine him as president. Being a leader is all acting any way.
Teacher: Good, but what about Mr. Gingrich’s tendency to shoot from the hip? The things he says that undermine his credibility?
Boy with skateboard: The dude just shreds! It’s like, everybody else is so rehearsed and plastic, and this dude just lets it rip. You gotta admire that kind of honesty, man!
Teacher: So taking money from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is honest? Isn’t he totally inconsistent?
Boy with skateboard: He gets to keep the money, and then he gets to come out against the people who gave him the money! That’s not being inconsistent, that’s being independent! That’s what leadership today is all about, man. You gotta bite the hand that thinks it’s feeding you.
Teacher: But doesn’t that make him a hypocrite? How is being hypocritical an attribute of leadership? Yes, young lady?
Girl in front seat: He may be a hypocrite, but he’s not a phony! He doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not. Of course we can’t trust him, but at least we can count on that. He’s dependably erratic. And think of the entertainment value. After four years of “No Drama Obama,” we’re all ready for “Newt is a Hoot”!
Teacher: But what about his ethics violations? Here’s a man who was found guilty of huge ethical problems by members of his own party, and now he’s a presidential frontrunner. How does that happen?
Boy in black turtleneck: He’s a Republican comeback kid. It’s not true that there are no second acts in American politics—there are all kinds of second acts, even third acts. We want leaders who can take a hit and come back! Out in Silicon Valley you can’t be a successful entrepreneur if you haven’t failed. In politics, you can’t be a real leader if you haven’t been drummed out of office. He’s a leader because he’s battle-tested!
Teacher: What do you make of the quality of his ideas? His positions on health care and global warming make him sound like a Democrat.
Child with beret: You don’t get it. The man is a big thinker! Like his Contract With America—he totally reframed the national political debate. And his books! The guy is prolific, so naturally some of his ideas will misfire. You can’t score if you don’t shoot.
Teacher: Fair enough, but what about Mr. Gingrich’s well-documented personal problems? His philandering, his multiple marriages? What are the leadership lessons there?
Young lady in blue dress: Well, he is a kind of a bad boy.
Teacher: How does that make him a leader?
Young lady in blue dress: Bad boys do things we all want to do but don’t dare. But because they’re so bold, they go ahead and do them. And then we admire them for doing it.
Teacher: And that’s good leadership because...?
Young lady in blue dress: Because we all want a leader who’s larger than life. We project our own wishes and desires onto our leaders. They do in public what we can only think about doing in private.
Teacher: All right. If he is so bold, such a political entrepreneur, then if he gets the nomination, who do you think he’ll pick as his vice-presidential running mate? Will he be bold there? Maybe reach across the aisle to a Democrat, the way John McCain almost did? Anybody got an answer? Anybody? Anybody other than the young lady in the blue dress? Because I think I know who you’d suggest.
Alan Webber, a founding editor of Fast Company magazine, is an award-winning editor, author and columnist. His most recent book is Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Yourself.