What Do We Really Want in an American President?

By Joseph R. Cerami.


What qualities do we want in our American president?  Do we look for style or substance, experience or potential, skills or knowledge, vision or values, or all of the above?  Some ideas from leadership studies can assist in guiding our thinking about our important roles as informed and engaged citizens.

For instance, former Harvard Kennedy School Dean, Joseph Nye, has popularized the notion of smart power. That idea is to blend the soft power skills of emotional intelligence, communications and vision, with the hard power skills of building organizations and coalitions, along with broad political skills to understand evolving environments, capitalize on trends to meet follower’s needs. Nye also strongly argues that in a democratic nation good leadership means being both effective and ethical.

Stanford Business School’s Robert Sutton popularized the idea of what he has come to term, in polite company, a no “boss-hole” rule–or how to lead without being or becoming a jerk.  Other leadership writers have referred to the idea of “toxic” leadership, or those who rely solely on commanding and pacesetting styles, as opposed to more nuanced visionary, coaching, democratic and affiliative styles.  Emotional intelligence (EI) experts suggest that the research is clear–over the long haul, toxic leaders are bad for your and their own health and are likely to contribute to organizational disasters.

And there are expectations for senior leaders meeting the highest standards of accountability. As former Secretary of Defense and President of Texas A&M Robert Gates has said in quoting Theodore Roosevelt at a university commencement speech: “The average … cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.” To hold those high standards, in full knowledge of the exposure to personal attacks, Gates goes on to point out that leaders at times have to have the courage “to chart a new course,” “to do what is right,” and to “stand alone.” Speaking truth to power is difficult, and so is speaking truth to organizations that are not performing up to their capabilities.

Sutton agrees when he writes: “Greatness comes only through dogged effort, doing many small things well, getting up after each hard knock, and helping your people press forward at every turn. The best bosses don’t ride into town, save the day with a bold move or two, declare victory, and then rest on their laurels.” So leaders must be effective and ethical to be good.

President George H.W. Bush, 41, is noted for saying that “public service is a noble calling.” And good leadership, leadership that Nye points out must be both effective and ethical, requires “dogged effort” and also calls for leaders of character. These thoughts are also reflected in Gates 2007 speech, upon returning to Texas A&M University, after once again being called by a president to serve his country: “In our heart of hearts, [public servants] are romantics, idealists and optimists. We actually believe we can make a difference, make the lives of others better.”

People who report on those who have worked with Bob Gates will tell you that he is grounded, pragmatic, and realistic rather than romantic, idealistic and optimistic. In short, his reflections hold a reverence for American political institutions and its public servants at all levels of government.

In a sober assessment of the highs and lows of public service, Gates writes:

“The White House is a poignant place….. And it seems to me that those who live and work there, if they are completely honest with themselves, with rare exception the most the most vivid memories are not of victory and joy but of crisis and defeat—and, for the fortunate few, of one or two occasions of historical importance. This is why character counts for so much in a President. In the White House, the elation of victory is fleeting and the burden of responsibility is enduring.”

In sum, the smart leader knows how to adapt to the reality of their environment and at the same time to inspire followers, and future leaders, to press forward and to be prepared get back up after hard knocks—and continually face the burden of responsibility.  For citizens then, for this and every generation, we need to reflect on the essential role of American presidents as leaders who understand that there are both burdensome responsibilities and true nobility in the meaningful work of public servants.

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