Rick Perry’s best leadership trait

January 11, 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.

Sure, Rick Perry has charisma to spare. He’s confident, folksy and has good looks to boot. But his biggest leadership strength is not a charming and Texas-sized swagger—it’s a finely tuned radar for putting a megaphone to what his followers want to hear.

Among his 2012 Republican primary supporters, that’s meant a sharp rebuke of a large federal government, a commitment to turning the economy around and cutting the deficit, fealty to socially conservative issues, and plenty of harsh words for the man people on his squad like to blame: President Obama. “I make a very proud statement, and of fact, that we have a president that’s a socialist,” Perry said without hesitation during the final Republican debate before the New Hampshire primary.

He’s not afraid of doubling down on his positions—he reiterated his controversial statement that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme without a flinch—or of hitting his opponents where it hurts on family values. (“If you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner,” he said in the Dec. 10 Iowa debate, a clear knock at the twice-divorced Newt Gingrich.) He has been called everything from “a genius for sensing where his base is on any given issue” to “a master at sensing the ebbs and swells of public opinion.”

Whether or not that political antenna is the result of natural ability or simply good advisers is a question worth asking. And there have been exceptions, of course: Perry got into hot water with conservatives for his position on a cervical cancer vaccine and his support for in-state college tuition rates for the children of illegal immigrants. His radar hasn’t translated into verbal dexterity—his infamous debate gaffes have been legendary—or into much in the way of votes yet.

It would be a cliché to say the leadership strength of the former yell leader for Texas A&M is being a cheerleader if it weren’t so true. People look for their leaders to root for the same causes they do, to applaud the ideas with which they identify, to amplify the things they’d like to say but wouldn’t get heard otherwise. Perry may have stumbled in the national spotlight, but his ability to sense and then give voice to his supporters’ opinions will remain a strength. Whether that helps him win the game remains to be seen.

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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