Do Grown-Ups Make the Best Leaders?

In a recent column in the Washington Post, former Clinton administration official Elaine Kamarck asked the compelling question, can a grown-up win the presidency? She goes on to discuss that the chatter classes often can see the merits of the well-versed, established candidate while the public likes to know that they can feel comfortable having a beer with the more-likely winner. Given the track record of our political leaders during the past few decades, perhaps it is time to think about how we are evaluating what we want in a president.

In the era of the highly crafted public persona, the piece of the leadership puzzle that is often missing is not the intelligence to do the job or the capacity to be a good time at the local watering hole; it is the confidence to be who they really are and to walk that all the time. In other words, we seem to believe that there is a recipe for the perfect political candidate or president and everyone is trying desperately to fit themselves into that mold. Candidates want to show that they are as smart as, as funny as, or politically minded as, instead of walking onto the stump and saying this is who I am, here is what I have to offer and this is how I can best serve the country right now.

Imagine how different our election process might be if instead of showing up in a myriad of settings trying to demonstrate to people they are “just like them,” they would respect the differences of the people they wish to serve by genuinely listening to their concerns and ideas on how to address them. Do we really need a president who feels comfortable in flannel or is willing to down the local cuisine with a foolish grin? And yet, we continue to hold these displays as the true test of a presidential mettle.

As a country, we have enormous respect for our past presidents. One reason is that those who are done serving seem to have taken on statesmen qualities, when in reality having finally put the striving to be at the political pinnacle behind them, they allow themselves to relax and be who they are—which tends to be not only real, it is reasoned, intelligent, comfortable and engaged. What a difference these qualities would make for a president who is still in office.

We love to think of our presidents as being the strong, effective visionary for the world. Unfortunately, the men and women running for this office are twisted, shaped, honed and molded for years prior to actually assuming the position of power. If we continue to support a political system that rewards those who wear the mask and play the political game, we will fail to ever elect a truly effective leader because what it takes to win the office is the antithesis of leadership.

With a presidential election coming up next year, we are at a point of opportunity. Are we going to go down the same political road again? Are we going to look for the superficial qualities that speak to our desire to believe that someone else can really solve our problems or are we going to require that real candidates show-up and reveal who they are? And most importantly are we going to allow the real candidate to be real—to share what they believe even if it isn’t what we want to hear, to make mistakes and learn from them, and to walk with us as we create solutions to the challenges before us.

The real leader is one who understands that empty promises don’t lead to results they only create, perhaps, hollow electoral victories. When will we learn that winning an election does little if the person is incapable of actually moving us toward our goals? This is a lesson that must first be learned by the electorate and then, and only then, will our elected officials follow suit.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Appreciating your push for integrity from our leaders, Kathleen. Do you have a good example of a leader that demonstrates the qualities you cite above – someone who is authentic?

Jerry Dale Stubben

Anyone who is making more than a million dollars a year can afford to pay
more to prevent brutal budget cuts. Rather than allow this nation to go

bankrupt and our economy to fall apart, tax millionaires and billionaires, and

use those funds to “only” pay off the debt.

It’s long past time for the super wealthy to pay their fair share.”

Kathleen Schafer

People ask the question often . . . give us an example of this type of leadership. There are, unfortunately not many at the national level and many more “anonymous” local leaders who work tirelessly to improve their communities for the joy of service and not because they aspire to higher office. These leaders often win the hearts of their constituents and they know that they will not move on to other offices because once they get beyond those who “know” them they find it increasingly difficult to complete with those that are more glib or media savvy.

On the national level, at times, Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have reached moments when they were willing to do what was best and to bring the best of all their leadership skills to the table. And, given what happens, it wasn’t long before they were doing what it took to appease various groups . . . hopefully we, the citizens of the US, will come to understand that ultimately, we are the power and we have the capacity to change what is happening in our elected bodies.

Kera Bartlett

Great post Kathleen! I have often wondered this chicken or the egg question before – the question of whether the electorate is informed enough to recognize and discourage political pandering. I hate to say my experiences thus far have shown me that voters take comfort in easily summarized candidates and positions. This desire for, and success of, oversimplification leads to candidates being “twisted, shaped, honed and molded” because one contrary or misspoken statement can destroy a reputation and career.