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The Presidency Revisited: Everything You Know is Wrong!

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
February 23, 2020

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
–John Quincy Adams

With apologies to the highly irreverent political satirists from the 1970s, The FireSign Theater, I propose to you now that what you may suspect to be true about the United States presidency could be false. Let’s begin with a simple 5-question, ungraded quiz.

1. The president needs to be an erudite scholar, very well spoken, kind of elite, with lots of decorum, but still give the impression that he/she can connect with regular Americans.

TRUE _____ FALSE _____.

2. The president is the most powerful leader in the United States. He or she sets the country’s agenda, with the job of the Congress being to find ways to implement that agenda.

TRUE _____ FALSE _____

3. The president needs to be a businessperson because many of the challenges we currently have involve slowing the rate of the national debt, balancing the budget and making trade deals with other nations.

TRUE _____ FALSE _____.

4. The president can be quite a dullard if he or she can find a way to get plenty of smart folks to advise and come up with smart things to do.

TRUE _____ FALSE _____.

5. The president does not have to get along with Congress to make things happen for us—he or she can create Executive Orders to transform vision into action.

TRUE _____ FALSE _____

As we celebrate President’s Day this year, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the desirable characteristics we would like to see in a United States president. We are currently in an election year—this article is not about our current president or any of the candidates aspiring to take his place. Rather, it is about the leadership characteristics that any president must have to succeed.

We live and act in the present—”The fierce urgency of now,” as Dr. Martin Luther King called it. The next president must live in the moment almost every waking hour of every day. We need our president to unite the country, cast off ideological notions and reach out to include the many diverse parts of our nation. He or she must be able to work with the other branches of government because it’s the only way that durable, sustainable laws can be passed to our collective benefit. No amount of presidential executive orders will take the place of passing laws that endure from one administration to the next.

Let’s review three important components of presidential leadership:

Integrity (true north, character and ethics).

Shakespeare said, “Be not afraid of greatness; some were born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them.” Truly great leaders have integrity and a true north—a moral compass of sorts. This true north is a president’s deeply held beliefs, experience set and chosen values, however acquired.

Charisma (style, enthusiasm, sincerity, approachable).

The president must serve as a galvanizer of others, exciting them into action, influencing followers to rally around strategy and initiatives of all kinds. We also need a statesman. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said, “A statesman’s duty is to bridge the gap between his nation’s experience and his vision.” The president does not need to be joker-in-chief, but he or she does need to lighten up the room, rather than suck all the air out of it, so that people can feel comfortable enough to contribute.

Action (visible behavior, takes decisions, bold).

This is the part that is constantly observable and open to judgment, approval or criticism. It can be somewhat difficult to judge a candidate on this criterion as opposed to a sitting president, but it is possible nevertheless. Most candidates have careers to examine for cues related to actions taken.

You can apply this brief but powerful template to any presidential candidate, using a 1 to 10 scale:

CRITERIA

RATING

True North (integrity, character, ethics, moral compass, personality, values, beliefs, humility, servant leader, courageous)

1 _ 2 _ 3 _ 4 _ 5 _ 6 _ 7 _ 8 _ 9 _ 10 _

Charisma (Style, enthusiasm, sincerity, influence, statesman)

1 _ 2 _ 3 _ 4 _ 5 _ 6 _ 7 _ 8 _ 9 _ 10 _

Action (what we see – observable. Promises kept, follows through, takes stands on clear-cut issues, works with others for optimal results)

 

1 _ 2 _ 3 _ 4 _ 5 _ 6 _ 7 _ 8 _ 9 _ 10 _

Be careful, therefore, if you have a candidate who scores high on action but low on true north. How about one who has a true north but almost no charisma and very little action? Every American must decide how to rate and then how to vote based on these leadership traits. Like all of us, a president is fallible, however, and will make mistakes. The important thing is how that president acknowledges those moments and events and redoubles efforts to get back on track. That’s real leadership.

Quiz answers: Mine were all FALSE! Yours?


Author: Dr. Robert Brescia is a senior executive with service to the nation in military, business, and education sectors. He respects the wisdom of generations and promotes the thrill of learning. Bob’s latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Please contact him at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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