‘How Will You Lead?’

It’s a question that’s rarely asked of candidates for public office. It ought to be asked all the time.
by | February 15, 2012

When Newt Gingrich took CNN's John King to task over the appropriateness of a debate question concerning the candidate's marital record, it got me thinking. What is an appropriate question for a campaign debate? More important, what kinds of questions would give voters useful insight into how the candidate might lead a government—not just from a policy perspective but as an executive?

At least in this year's presidential race, evidence is available to gain insight into the remaining candidates' leadership styles and abilities. President Obama now has been in the White House for three years. Mitt Romney was governor of a large state for four years after a career in business. Gingrich led the House of Representatives as speaker, and has now presided over two campaign staffs during this race. Rick Santorum was a U.S. senator, leading senatorial staffs and running political campaigns. But available evidence is not being plumbed to draw meaningful distinctions about likely executive decision-making style. We are well aware of ideological divides, but we don't really know how a President Gingrich's or President Romney's or President Santorum's leadership of the federal government might contrast with President Obama's.

It would be nice to think that this glaring knowledge gap will be rectified in the general-election campaign. The president is not just the politician who happens to occupy the top position in the executive branch. The president must be an executive, leading the large, complicated enterprise that is the federal government. Why then do questions asked in presidential debates, and rhetoric on the campaign trail, almost never provide any insights into the leadership style and philosophies of candidates?

This is not a phenomenon limited to national campaigns. State and local elections also feature precious little discussion of leadership and executive decision-making. Candidates for president, governor or mayor are people competing to take jobs that require not just political skills or likeability, but also executive ability. Ask yourself, however, if you can remember the last time that a candidate's capacity to actually lead a government was a central issue in a political campaign.

Often, if a particular candidate has been a successful private-sector leader, that experience is cited. (In the 1980s, Kentucky gubernatorial candidate John Y. Brown famously promised to run Kentucky like he had Kentucky Fried Chicken, and as governor he did appoint other successful businesspeople to state posts.) Even in those cases, however, there is rarely a discussion of how transferable that experience is to the job that the candidate is seeking. More recently, when Rahm Emanuel ran for mayor of Chicago, his executive experience (as White House chief of staff, where his leadership style earned him the nickname "Rahmbo") was not a prominent issue in the campaign, but rather took a back seat to questions about his residency and whether he would raise sales taxes.

If I had my way, every presidential or gubernatorial or mayoral debate would include a required question designed to illuminate the candidates' executive leadership and decision-making style. Of course, there still could be the usual questions concerning the tax returns of the candidates, or their stand on marriage, or whether they think that food stamps make people overly dependent on government. Above and beyond those questions, however, here are some (by no means an exhaustive list) that I would argue are more important. These suggestions focus on skills and behaviors relevant to governing (as opposed to politicking):

• What qualities do you look for in members of your executive team? Are there particular qualities that you are seeking for all positions? How important is it that those selected for positions have deep knowledge or expertise in the relevant area? (Does the secretary of the Treasury, for example, have to have Wall Street experience—or would a track record of sound economic judgment, compliance with tax laws and demonstrated management skills be sufficient?)

• Are you tolerant, even encouraging, of dissenting views? Or are you unable to manage yourself in the face of pushback, and therefore discourage it in those who serve you?

• More generally, how do you use evidence when you make decisions? When pursuing a particular policy course, will you consult with stakeholders and available data and analysis, both inside and outside of government, prior to making a decision? Which factor matters more: whether an approach has proven effective or whether it keeps a political constituency happy?

There is frequently a tremendous disconnect between what it takes to be elected and what it takes to govern. Sometimes candidates' campaigns do provide glimpses of executive style, but usually unwittingly. When Newt Gingrich's entire campaign staff quit in June of 2011, they cited his lack of discipline as a reason for their mass resignation. But we need more than these rare, chance indicators to go on when we are choosing the people who will run our governments.

The fact that leadership, and executive style, are not discussed in political campaigns is just further evidence of the inadequacy of our prevailing political discourse. As a constituency, we fail to take responsibility for the reality that when we elect a president, a governor, a mayor or a county executive we are electing a leader-in-chief and a decision maker-in-chief. Trying to gain insight into how that leadership would be exercised—and the extent to which data, analysis, and reasoned debate would influence decision-making—seems a topic worthy of at least one question in a campaign debate.

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