Why it’s so rare for presidents to be breakthrough leaders


President Barack Obama holds a conference call with advisers during a motorcade ride. (Pete Souza/THE WHITE HOUSE)
August 23, 2012

Presidential scholar Thomas Cronin, a former White House Fellow and president emeritus of Whitman College, is the author or co-author of a dozen books on politics, government and the presidency. His latest book, Leadership Matters , was written with Michael A. Genovese, director of the Institute for Leadership Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The book, praised by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin as “an absolute tour-de-force,” focuses on how effective leaders navigate the inherent contradictions and paradoxes of leadership. Cronin spoke with Vincent Bzdek, the Washington Post’s deputy national political editor, about leadership in the context of the presidential election.

Why do you choose to write Leadership Matters at this stage in your career? How has your perspective on leadership evolved in this book?

We wrote Leadership Matters because societal leadership and governance are the ultimate challenge for social scientists. My co-author, Michael Genovese, and I are longtime students of the American presidency, and to study presidential leadership is to learn that leadership breakthroughs are rare and, when they do occur, are the product of far more than one person, one speech, one institution or even one era.

The exercise of leadership is, moreover, full of contradictions, paradoxes and “black swan” unexpected events. We wrote to unpack many of the paradoxes of leadership.

Recent polls show that Americans have very little faith in their political leaders, and political leadership in general. What kind of concrete steps need to be taken to restore faith in our political leaders?

Well, people have always been skeptical if not cynical about political leaders. Trust may have declined in recent years because new technologies and investigative reporting techniques make it harder and harder for officials to hide when they dissemble. Modern technologies also amplify the demonizing of one’s rival in contemporary electioneering.

We can’t legislate trust any more than we can regulate or instill authenticity in candidates.

Greek playwrights delighted their audiences by satirizing their politicians—just as Jon Stewart, Maureen Dowd, Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh do today.

We can’t love representative democracy and hate politicians. For to completely scorn politics and politicians comes very close to scorning constitutional democracy and, possibly, ourselves.

A quote from your book: “Leadership requires successive displays of contrasting characteristics.” What is the difference between that and “flip flopping,” the leadership criticism often leveled against Mitt Romney?

I think we are probably too put off by charges of flip-flopping. This year’s candidates have done their fair share of this, and the media love these ‘gotcha’ stories. But, looking back in time, we liked that Lincoln changed his mind about how to deal with slavery and deploying blacks to fight for the Union. We liked it when FDR went back on his promise to balance the budget and when Nixon changed his mind about the best way to deal with China.

LBJ became a more ardent champion of civil and voting rights when he became a national Democrat not just a Texas Democrat. So also when Obama changed to the national stage and was no longer primarily a Chicago Democrat. Not surprisingly, Romney has changed from thinking like a Boston-area Republican as he assumes the mantle of a far more conservative national Republican Party.

Let’s get real. Flip-flopping is sometimes desirable and sometimes a trade necessity. Times change. Constituencies change. People learn new things. Of course, pragmatism plays a role. We like being tough on cautious politicians who don’t speak assertively and consistently as to what should be done. But this is what Lincoln did in 1860 and FDR in 1932. They kept their options open.

President Obama has been characterized as a leader who “leads from behind.” Do you think that’s an accurate assessment of his leadership style? Can you be a successful leader leading from behind?

Yes, President Obama often “leads from behind.” This was especially said about the Libyan engagement. But leading from behind or leading from the middle is a fair characterization of his and most presidencies. Our system was designed so presidents are not allowed to get too far in advance of the people and their mutual aspirations.

That’s why presidents are invariably transactional rather than transformational leaders. We elect pragmatists like Lincoln rather than passionate, principled people like the head of the Abolitionists. We say we want visionaries but vote against people like Barry Goldwater, George McGovern, Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan.

Poets, prophets and conviction philosophers try to lead from out front. Constitutional democracies are designed for something else.

Here’s a question that probably goes beyond your book—but do you have any insights, based on your research on leadership, about Campaign 2012?

A paradox is that we ask our leaders simultaneously to listen and learn from us yet teach us and lead us.

Democracies are not very good or experienced at downsizing. This is a time when we need leaders who are adept at saying no to their friends, and saying no to entrenched, well-funded interests.

John McCain won praise a few weeks ago by calling out wingnuts in his own party for mindlessly demeaning a senior State Department staffer. It would be refreshing for Romney and Ryan, in similar fashion, to specify a few weapons systems they believe are no longer needed, or to call out some big banks for practices that abuse the public trust. Meanwhile Obama and Biden might tell us more clearly how they will downsize the national debt and become even more rigorous in eliminating waste, fraud and inefficiencies across the whole scope of the governmental Leviathan.

You argue that there are no how-to prescriptions for leadership. But you also argue that leadership can be learned. How do you teach leadership if there are no rules?

Much of what is involved in leadership can be learned—skills such as strategic planning, negotiating, coalition-building and speaking. Leadership is a performing art and would-be leaders learn just as understudies or development league players do in theatre and sports.

The soul of a leader—judgment, integrity, character, courage, fearlessness, empathy and public virtue—are harder to learn, harder to get right. “Can leadership be taught?” is a less appropriate question than “Can leadership be learned?”

“Management by committee” is often viewed negatively. Yet much of your emphasis in the new book is on the leadership of teams and groups, rather than the leadership of individuals. Can “management by committee” be a good thing?

Leadership involves leaders, followers and context. It is invariably a group process rather than a single act by a lone individual.

Leaders not only need associates, colleagues and followers, their very legitimacy is granted by their followers. One of the paradoxes of leadership is that leaders, contrary to storybook narratives, often follow, and followers can point the way. Needed change regularly comes from the bottom up rather than the top down, as was the case of the Bill of Rights, Civil Rights and women’s suffrage.

You argue that political leadership has different stages and roles. It seems that Obama started out as an inspirational Act I or Act II leader, a coalition builder and raiser of hopes, and has quickly evolved into a more pragmatic, incremental Act III leader. Is that a good thing?

Well, policy progress usually comes about because a whole host of policy activists and specialists have worked on a policy idea prior to its approval by top elected officials. To borrow a metaphor from the theater, policy ideas are often “invented” or formulated in Act I. Act II people adapt these ideas to existing realities and organize groups to lobby and mobilize support. It is Act III power brokers (typically elected leaders and their associates) who eventually respond in some fashion to Act I ideas and Act II movements. They further modify and try to find ways to enact and implement policies that will be supported by majorities.

Change just doesn’t happen in any one scene or act. Important political and policy leadership is usually the result of activities that emerge over the course of a protracted multi-staged process.

Those who yearn for instant transformational leadership by some kind of National Spiderman without the requisite policy incubation and political agitation are folks who, in the words of Frederick Douglass, want “crops without plowing the ground … and want rain without the thunder and lightning.”

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