WPSU provided an unexpected opportunity to think about leadership when it ran a series of recent American Experience presidential biographies over the summer in “honor” of the 2016 Presidential Election. They were particularly interesting because we saw some of the mechanics of how the presidents rose through the political ranks and also how they organized their administrations to react to different issues and events.
I’m not sure I learned anything startling, but the biographies definitely emphasized different leadership issues that have come up in the past. A major theme from both my interviews and the biographies was the need to build relationships. In a democracy, even when you are the chief executive, you need to get consensus from different constituents, usually represented by the legislature. Similarly, international diplomacy requires building relationships with leaders in different nations (and requires cross cultural competence as well). And of course, building relationships with the party and the voters blocks.
Another theme I saw was how a President must maintain a delicate balance of all the different leadership tasks. Neglecting one aspect of the balance can make a person less effective or even derail an administration.
For instance, although Johnson was a master networker in the Senate, he actually sacrificed in populist values for many years in order to get elected. In contrast, Carter was more committed to his values, but was not very skilled at communicating them in a way the American people could always appreciate. Reagan was a strong networker, committed to his values and was excellent in communicating those values. However he didn’t like to focus on details and sometimes his staff would make decisions that were not always popular and led to different controversies.
A final lesson for me was understanding how each president, even the one-term presidents and the ones with colossal failures, had their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Carter was able to broker a lasting peace treaty in the Middle East. Bush (41) was able to negotiate a peaceful end to the Cold War and Johnson did commit to passing civil rights legislation. In the end, what they couldn’t do was explain their policies well to the American public.
P.S. Speaking of communication, I was very surprised to discover that Nixon actually has a very effective speaking voice. It’s no wonder that when he debated Kennedy, people listening on the radio thought he had won.