What makes a president a great leader

Michael Siegel is the author of The President as Leader , an analysis of the leadership skills of five recent American presidents. He is also an employee-training and leadership specialist for the federal court system and an adjunct professor at American University and Johns Hopkins University. Siegel spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

What are the top attributes of a great leader, and which presidents have exhibited these attributes?  

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In my book, The President as Leader , I identify four leadership qualities that define excellence in the White House. First, does the president have a compelling vision for his presidency? Ronald Reagan embraced a vision of a smaller, less regulated government with lower taxes and less social welfare spending. As a New Democrat, Bill Clinton was very serious about balancing the federal budget and reaching out to the business community, but at the same time not abandoning the needs of poor people.

Second, the president has to have the wherewithal to implement his vision. The president has to appoint professionals — not friends — to help develop and influence policy. He has to develop the skill of retail politics, something that Obama admitted he had undervalued in his first term.  

Third, the president has to focus on a few major goals at a time. When asked by his domestic policy adviser what his goals were, Jimmy Carter delivered an A-to-Z list, from abortion to Zaire. In contrast, Reagan focused on three to four major goals immediately after his election. He hit the ground running and got a large part of his agenda implemented.

Finally, does the president understand the process and implications of decision-making? To create the conditions for effective decision-making, it’s important for a president to select people who are not only “yes men and women,” but who exhibit characteristics of the “courageous follower,” somebody who is willing to tell the boss the truth. It seems Obama has shown a real ability to do this. George W. Bush, who was very decisive, wasn’t as good at examining the consequences of his decisions.

How can the president motivate the federal workforce?

Twenty days into his presidency, George H. W. Bush met with federal workers and said, “I’m coming to you as president and offer my hand in partnership. I promise to lead and to serve beside you as we work together to carry out the will of the American people.” The president must advocate for and celebrate federal employees. He must make clear that government service is a noble challenge and a public trust.

How does a president demonstrate leadership in the selection and management of his Cabinet?

A president makes a strong statement in his Cabinet selection. He can choose Cabinet secretaries who eagerly embrace his vision of government, as demonstrated by Reagan and George W. Bush. Or he can choose Cabinet officials who are willing to challenge his thinking. I think this is the case with Obama. It’s also important for a president to know the functions of each agency, and where there are points of overlap.

Do you have a favorite story about presidential leadership?

Think back to President Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs disaster. Kennedy went on national television and made a speech I don’t think we’ll ever hear again in our lifetime. I’m going to quote from it: “Ladies and gentlemen. Success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan. I failed. Blame me.” Do you know what happened to Kennedy’s popularity? It shot way up. People don’t expect perfection from leaders, they expect honesty.

Do you have a favorite president?

I do, and unfortunately it’s not terribly original. It is, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Not only did he have a strong vision, he understood that there’s a sequence to implementing his vision. He knew he couldn’t deal with slavery directly until he dealt with keeping the Union together. Also, as president he did not orbit around ego. He orbited around the mission. Finally, he was a humanitarian who not only forgave his opponents, but brought them into his government.

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