OpEd | Who has the essential qualities for presidential leadership – Biden or Trump?

S.A. Shepler (c) 2020 Community Word


The most frequently asked question during these quadrennial presidential election marathons has to be “Who will win?” But that is the wrong question. With troubles deepening here and abroad, the question should be: “Who will govern us well?”

Let me suggest that it is possible to identify the elements that account for accomplishment in the Oval Office. If you know what they are, it may help you decide who is best suited to lead our nation. Based on careful study of 13 presidents since World War II, there are six dynamics that define presidential success. (Adapted from “The Presidential Difference: Leadership Style from FDR to Barack Obama,” Fred I. Greenstein, Princeton University Press, 2009.) We ought to look for evidence of a candidate’s capacity to combine these factors into effective leadership.

Vision, the capacity to inspire, is the first factor. A successful president’s goals are explicit, clear, and consistent. His vision is more than an ideal –– it also accounts for political reality. In this, rhetorically gifted presidents have excelled: Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

To get things done requires political skill. Lyndon Johnson, for example, used his formidable political skill to achieve workable unity; to foster and to husband public support, enthusiasm even, for such measures as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Public communication is the third essential skill. A president must be able to explain and persuade, a skill that requires more than eloquence. A successful president must appreciate the power of the bully pulpit, present himself appropriately and effectively, sense that words carry weight, speak with conviction, and have command of information.

Successful presidential administrations exhibit organizational effectiveness. So much of the presidency, as they say, is a matter of waking up in the morning and trying to drink from a fire hydrant. Has a president, or a candidate, demonstrated the self-confidence necessary to select able people? Does he possess the ability to rally the staff and structure their activities effectively? Is he able to promote cooperation and build teams? Does he understand relationships with other institutions of government? Dwight Eisenhower excelled at organizational effectiveness.

Voters should account for a candidate’s cognitive style, his beliefs about how the world works and why it does so. These beliefs serve presidents by providing a frame of reference for raising and evaluating policy options, for filtering information and giving it meaning, and for establishing boundaries of action. Components that make up cognitive style include memory, an openness to new insights, the ability to grasp abstractions, the knowledge to use accurate historical analogies, the gift to get to the central essence of issues quickly, a supple mind, and intellectual strength across a broad range.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to manage one’s emotions and turn them to constructive purposes. To what extent does a candidate understand his emotions and recognize their impact on his performance and his relationships with others? How realistically does he appreciate his strengths and weaknesses? Does he have a positive sense of self-worth? Can he keep disruptive emotions and impulses under control?

Call me old-fashioned. I want a president who has a consistent vision for America, who has the skill to bring our warring political factions together, who can explain what he wants to do and why he wants to do so, who surrounds himself with people who may be smarter than he is (but is not threatened by them), who has enough humility to admit a mistake, and who has the curiosity and self-confidence to take on the challenges of the office.

Frank H. Mackaman is the Historian at The Dirksen Congressional Center. The opinions expressed here are his own.

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