A question of presidential leadership
OUR PROSPECTIVE 44th presidents have spent upwards of half a billion dollars making the case that they are uniquely worthy of Americans' votes. And yet after more than a year of frenetic campaigning, several dozen debates, and relentless media attention, the public has come to know remarkably little about the candidates as leaders.
True, Americans have gotten a sense of where the candidates stand on healthcare, the Iraq war, and other critically important issues. And we know a fair amount about their biographies - the flattering chapters as well as some each candidate might prefer to gloss over.
But given that President McCain or President Obama will face a truly daunting array of challenges on multiple fronts, we need for him to bring to the White House more than simply a set of sound policies and an impressive biography.
Indeed, perhaps more urgently than at any time since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in office, the United States needs an extraordinary leader in the White House.
While we may have trouble defining it, leadership is an intangible that most of us intuitively believe matters - in any organization, large or small, and certainly in the White House. Recognizing this, candidates invariably tout their own exemplary leadership. But voters are typically left with little more than candidates' self-serving, bumper sticker-caliber assertions: "strong leadership," "proven leadership," "new leadership," etc.
The media, too, typically focus their attention elsewhere - at their best, on the many pressing substantive issues, but all too often on the day-to-day gyrations of the horse race. Yes, candidates are asked the occasional question about leadership. But there has been little sustained inquiry on the topic that would afford voters an opportunity to take the full measure of the candidate as a leader: how he or she engages followers, listens, treats allies and adversaries, perseveres, and responds to the unexpected and the urgent.
Considering the stakes of this election, shouldn't part of the process of choosing the next president be a "job interview" of sorts, designed to shed light on the candidates' leadership capacity? Voters deserve a better understanding of who the candidates really are; their aptitude for building teams and coalitions; their judgment and decision-making style; and the special competencies they bring to getting difficult things done.
To that end, the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Ken Blanchard Companies recently convened a diverse group of leaders from all sectors - government, corporate, and nonprofit - as well as academics and others who study leadership. Two hundred participants developed questions for the candidates that would help introduce them more fully as leaders to the American voter.
We don't presume that the 15 questions our group generated are the only ones, or even the best ones, for getting a handle on the candidates as leaders - just a good start, on which others are invited to build. But whatever the specific questions, in this time of enormous challenge for our nation, Americans are entitled to learn more about the candidates through a dignified "job interview" centered on leadership - and to weigh in on the questions that those aspiring to lead the nation should answer.
David Gergen and Andy Zelleke are director and co-director, respectively, of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.