Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Experience and Leadership: What Does it Mean?
We’re about to elect one of the least experienced candidates in American history to be our leader in these troubled times. Does it matter? History tells us the answer is yes, and no.
You would have to go back to Abraham Lincoln to find a presidential candidate in the U.S. with as little experience as Barak Obama. When Lincoln was elected to serve as U.S. President in 1860 he had served four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, and just one two-year term in the U.S. Congress. But Lincoln had also run his own businesses—first as the owner of a store (something he wasn’t very good at, by his own admission) and then as a lawyer. He had served as a captain in the Illinois state militia, a position which, at that time, meant election by the men he commanded. He was 51 years of age when he became president.
Who could have predicted that Lincoln would have been such a great leader? People who knew him, liked him and saw him as a principled man. But in the age before television and YouTube this was a very small group of people. He was a great reader and a great story teller. He was one of the first leaders in Illinois to publically speak against slavery. In 1860, many of the wheeler-dealers in his party could see the conflict with the South on the horizon and wanted no part of the presidency. Lincoln, whom they saw as bumpkin, was nominated, in part, because no one in the know really wanted the job. Nothing in his past could have foretold what a transcendent leader he was to become during the single worst period in American history. In reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, Team of Rivals, I was repeatedly struck by the nuance of his political thinking, in addition to all the usual qualities we associate with Lincoln: wisdom, compassion, folksy charm, and self-sacrifice. The leadership Lincoln rose to might have been predicted by his friends; but how could voters have imagined it?
By contrast, Winston Churchill spent his entire life preparing for the most important role he was to play on the world stage: Prime Minister of Britain during World War II. He graduated from Sandhurst, Britain’s foremost military academy, in the top ten of his class. He served with distinction in India, the Sudan, and South Africa before being elected to parliament at the age of 26. In various governments over half a century he served as Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for War, Secretary of State for Air, Minister of Munitions, and Lord of the Admiralty. He also served as an officer in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I. He wrote dozens of books, served as a war correspondent, was captured by the Boers in South Africa, escaped, and traveled 300 miles to freedom. “I’m Winston bloody Churchill, and I’m free!” he famously shouted on as he crossed into Portuguese-African territory. He was the grandson of the Duke of Marlborough and though his skeptical grandmother called him “that upstart, Winston Churchill,” his leadership skills were not a surprise to anyone.
Ronald Reagan’s experience is the subject of much discussion. The fact that he spent the early part of his life as a movie actor caused a great deal of laughter among the inside-the-beltway crowd in Washington. But what he had done in Hollywood was to rise to the top of a profession to which millions aspire and only a rare few achieve. He served as president of the Screen-Actors-Guild, one of the largest unions in the world. He served in the military during World War II. And, he had executive experience: he served two terms as governor of California, a state so large and so fertile it has the fifth largest GNP in the world. It is true his only foreign policy experience came from his knowledge of California’s role as a world class exporter of goods and services. But, as we learned when his handwritten speeches were published after his death, he had been a student of foreign affairs all his adult life.
Reagan, like all great leaders, was a creative thinker. When offered two bad choices in the war games of his day—concede to Soviet aggression or commit to the philosophy of “mutually assured destruction” (known as MAD) in a nuclear war—Reagan imagined a third solution, a missile shield that could protect the U.S. from just such a holocaust. Once again, the non-creative thinkers in Washington derided his idea and called it “Star Wars.” Missiles that intercept missiles are in use today, most famously in Israel, where the American technology is much applauded.
At 47, Barak Obama is the youngest and least experienced of all of the leaders I’ve sited here. He has served three terms in the Illinois senate and part of a term in the U.S. Senate. He has never run his own business nor served in the military. We have no idea what kind of a leader he will be. He might be a bad leader. He might be a good one. We know next to nothing about his leadership abilities. Yet this is not so terribly unusual. There is no real experience that can prepare a person to become President of the United States. Since it appears he is going to get elected we can only hope and pray he’ll be good at his job. The peace and safety of the world depends upon it.