Great leadership profiles of Mitt Romney


October 18, 2012

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

If the leadership profiles of Barack Obama tend to be organized around the characteristics for which the president is most known—his pragmatism, his penchant for compromise, his coolness—the ones about Mitt Romney tend to follow the chapters of his life.

There is the one about how Romney’s years at Harvard defined him, a young married Mormon go-getter carrying around his father’s briefcase while putting together growth-share matrixes about balancing work and family demands. There is the one about his time turning around the Salt Lake City Olympics, where he “learned the ways of Washington and the hurly-burly of politics, mastered the news media, built a staff of loyalists and made fund-raising connections” that would be critical to his presidential run. And there is the one about his years in France, where he faced rejection after rejection as a Mormon missionary, something that surely helped to harden and mold him into the man he is today.

But a few profiles rise above the rest, either for how well they illustrate a certain period in the GOP candidate’s life or for how lucidly they reveal details about Romney’s management or leadership style without falling into the “What Mitt learned from X” format. Here, a few of the best: 

The Lessons of the Father,”by Neil Swidey in The Boston Globe

To understand what makes a leader tick, it’s critical to understand the experiences that shaped them. And in Romney’s case, particularly the Mitt Romney who is running for president, one of the most critical was watching his father make a comment that would ultimately keep him from his shot at the White House. In this 2006 profile, Swidey chronicles the infamous “brainwashing” comment about the Vietnam War made by George Romney and how it has shaped the cautious, scripted candidate—and leader—we see today in his son.

Romney in Crisis: Two Dark Spots in Fortunate Life,” by Sheryl Gay Stolberg in The New York Times

Stolberg takes two moments from Romney’s life—when he is in a car crash in France while working as a Mormon missionary and when his wife, Ann, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis—to illustrate how Romney has learned to manage crises. “Both offer clues into Mr. Romney’s character, and the way he reacts to challenges,” Stolberg writes in this 2012 profile. “He is both forward-looking and inward-looking, practical and deeply private, with a consultant’s instinct for identifying solutions even in the most personally trying times.” His wife’s diagnosis plunged him into a time of emotional difficulty; the car crash plunged a 21-year-old into new leadership responsibilities.“There’s a certain expediency about how he deals with crisis,” a Romney biographer and distant relation told Stolberg. “He deals with it, he ties up the loose ends and he moves forward.”

Mitt Romney, as a leader in Mormon church, became a master of many keys,” by Jason Horowitz in The Washington Post

Horowitz’s look at Romney’s leadership in the Mormon church spells out, as he writes, “how [Romney’s] actions sometimes clashed with his political positions.” But the 2012 profile, which looks at a side of Romney’s biography that his campaign does not feature often, is interesting not just for these contradictions, but for how the church’s hierarchy may have shaped his approach to leadership. He is called a “real iron-rodder” by a member of the Boston church and was known for holding his congregants to a high standard; as a church “stake president,” he had total authority and rarely had to deal with any dissent.

Inside the Campaign: How Romney stumbled,” by Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei in Politico

The race has changed dramatically since this mid-September profile, before Obama’s poor first debate showing and the current change in the polls. And while not a typical profile, Allen and Vandehei’s bombshell look inside the Romney campaign revealed the cracks in its structure and management at that moment. Senior strategist Stuart Stevens takes most of the heat in the story (“Stevens has taken the brunt of the blame for an unwieldy campaign structure that, as the joke goes among frustrated Republicans, badly needs a consultant from Bain & Co. to straighten it out”). But the picture painted of Romney’s management isn’t all that rosy, either: “Romney associates are baffled that such a successful corporate leader has created a team with so few lines of authority or accountability. Romney has allowed seven distinct power centers to flourish inside his campaign”. 

Transaction Man,” by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker

Lemann turns to both Romney’s private-equity experience and his Mormonism to examine the primary influences on the candidate’s life. While it is less a look at the type of leader he may be, the lengthy profile is one of the most in-depth looks at the twin forces that shaped the man currently running for president, and its insights shouldn’t be missed.

The Mitt Romney Who Might Have Been,” by Roger Draper in The New York Times

Draper explores the four years Romney spent as governor of Massachusetts as the closest proximate to what he might be like as president. He comes away with evidence of a more moderate Republican who could face trouble should he try to lead the same way if he becomes president. In doing so, Draper reveals why the Romney campaign may spend so much time talking about Romney’s business experience, and so little time talking about is time in elected office. Perhaps, he writes, it’s because it “calls to mind a lifelong technocrat who does whatever works rather than a conservative leader who sticks to ‘what’s right.’ ”

More from On Leadership:

Leadership profiles of Barack Obama

Leadership profiles of Paul Ryan

Leadership profiles of Joe Biden

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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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