A leadership approach to elections

A better way of knowing who is fit to lead

In his 1978 book The Pursuit of Happiness and Other Sobering Thoughts, George F. Will wrote: “I have made it an aim of my life to die without ever having written a column about which presidential advisors are ascending and which are descending.”

Sadly, his contemporary colleagues seem to focus almost exclusively during elections on who is ascending and descending. I argue that there is a better, more substantive way to assess candidates for elected office.

The horse race

There are three ways to evaluate candidates for elected leadership roles. The first is the horse race — who is succeeding and failing at campaigning. This involves scoring candidates on fundraising, ad messaging, as well as positioning (to the left or right of competitors), image crafting and packaging. Endless polls fuel these evaluations. The media seems to love this approach for its drama and sporting event feel, and for the gossipy way that information is gathered. This is especially evident in the obsession over controversies and gaffes.

Unfortunately, skill as a campaigner is often a poor predictor of success in governing. This point is made by psychologist Robert Hogan and his colleagues:

Leadership emergence involves standing out in a group, and modern organizations tend to reward the winners of the within-group competition with “high potential” nominations and promotions. In contrast, leadership effectiveness concerns forming and managing a winning team, unit, or organization … we prefer to define effectiveness exclusively in terms of the impact a leader has on employee motivation, team dynamics, and tangible results, notably team performance.

Policy positions

The second is the realm of policy positions. Where does the candidate stand on the domestic, social and foreign issues of the day? What proposals have he or she made to address problems in each of these domains? Although many candidates try to get by with platitudes and catchy phrases, eventually the last candidates standing will try to enunciate positions on key issues. Sometimes, the candidate turned elected official will actually act on campaign pledges, and gather support for the agenda items that were championed. Much of the time, however, the positions were never truly held, but were embraced to win the support or allay the concerns of a specific bloc (e.g., the “party faithful”, the “swing voters”). Other positions are abandoned because of “evolving views,” or set aside in favor of other priorities. In some cases, implementing positions is blocked by the legislative or judicial branch of government, or by other constituencies. Because of this, stated positions are an incomplete indication of how effective an official will be at governing.

The governing metric

The third and most often ignored metric is the candidate’s actual capacity for leading and managing, that which Hogan and colleagues call “effectiveness.” How will working with the candidate be on a day-to-day basis? Will the candidate be stymied by personal weaknesses, or the inability to work with supporters and opponents equally? These are only some of the questions that deserve to be answered. And, if the candidate has no track record of having led anything prior to the election, that itself should invoke scrutiny. It is no accident that over the last 40 years, most presidents have served previously as governors rather than as legislators. As we journey through the election season, keep these metrics in mind when choosing the next wave of our national, state, and city leaders. Through interviews, focus groups and surveys, we can generate numerous indicators of leadership capacity. This is not unlike the ways in which corporate leaders are, or should be, evaluated. Of course, the list must be refined for an elected position that comes with more multifaceted roles and shareholders than those of a typical CEO.

Here are some potential criteria:

The ability to get things done (pass legislation, conduct treaties and wars, etc.)
The ability to choose advisors and department heads wisely, and remove them when needed
The ability to negotiate, convince and get buy-in from those coming from different viewpoints
The ability to get good work out of others, and play to others’ strengths
Surrounding oneself with people willing and able to tell truth to power. Such people are more valuable than yes-men and blind loyalists.
The ability to accept legitimate criticism without stubbornness and vindictiveness
Respecting subordinates and their boundaries
The ability to enunciate a vision that will ennoble and spur the populace to rally around it, and to sacrifice for it if necessary
The ability to bring people together for the common good instead of setting people, and their needs, against each other
Humility and the willingness to subjugate one’s ego or legacy to the greater good

Generating this type of data does not replace the need to know a candidate’s policy positions and proposed solutions to problems. If anything, a good manager with a misguided agenda could be more dangerous to the populace than someone incompetent. Voters will still want to know if the candidate and his or her unelected team share their core values.

Nor will collecting the information be easy. Protecting the data collection from the very real biases of various media outlets and savvy political operatives could be quite a task. However, difficulty is not an excuse to fall back on the gossipy focus — on whose campaign tactics, negative ads and misstatements are moving them up or down. Difficulty does not absolve the media or civic groups from at least trying to capture the essence of how the candidates will perform as leaders.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the September-October 2015 issues of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.