Does McCain or Obama have what it takes to be a good leader? | St. Louis Public Radio

Does McCain or Obama have what it takes to be a good leader?

Oct 29, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 29, 2008 - For many election cycles, Robert Lefton has applied the leadership matrix he developed for corporate chiefs to U.S. presidents, past, present and future.

The co-founder of Psychological Associates Inc., a 50-year-old business consulting firm in Clayton, Lefton  has definite ideas about what kind of leader -- political or corporate -- is most the effective. The most successful leader, Lefton said, is one who challenges subordinates to come up with their best ideas and efforts, listens well, makes clear decisions and follows through.

What kind of leader is President George W. Bush?

Lefton, who describes himself as a "social Republican" with many ties to the business world, voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. Now, he says with regret in his voice, he believes Bush is "deeply Q1" - his matrix term for a leader who makes up his mind without consulting, has strong authoritarian tendencies and discourages debate among his advisers.

A Q1 leader is domineering and authoritarian -- "my way or the highway," as Lefton put it. "If you have a brilliant Q1 with integrity, that's OK," Lefton said. "But if he's not brilliant, it doesn't work."

With the extended election season, Lefton and other observers are now focusing on the leadership styles of Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. What concerns these observers is how these two men, one of whom will be elected president on Tuesday, would choose a course of action in a time of crisis or in pursuing domestic and foreign policies with Congress.

"Here's my thesis," Lefton said. "We don't ask enough questions of the candidates to determine their leadership style."

The debates don't really get to a candidate's decision-making approach, Lefton said, because the candidates are well rehearsed and often fall back on lines from their stump speeches.

"We need to ask, 'How are you going to be sure a decision is implemented?'," Lefton said. "And, 'How will you handle disagreement?' 'What drives a high-performance team'?"

As examples, Lefton observed that Bush and Harry S Truman share key characteristics, such as decisiveness and forcefulness.

But, he said, "Bush is a terrible listener. He doesn't budge. I think Bush is anti-intellectual" even though he has degrees from Yale and Harvard. Truman, on the other hand, had not attended college. But Truman surrounded himself with excellent advisers, Lefton said, and listened to them carefully before making decisions.

matrix of leadership

Q1: autocratic, domineering

Q2: unassertive, reserved, distant

Q3: easy-going, loose, unstructured

Q4: collaborative, us-centered, responsive

Can voters choose a chief executive with better leadership skills for the next four years?

Randall Calvert, professor of political science at Washington University, isn't too optimistic.

It's hard for journalists who cover the two candidates closely -- much less voters -- to get useful information about how McCain or Obama makes key decisions.

"They make all their decisions behind closed doors," he said.

Besides choosing their campaign staff leaders, the most revealing decision so far, in both cases, has been the choice of vice-presidential running mate.

Like some other observers, Calvert believes McCain's choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska was handled too quickly and not reviewed thoroughly. The results have not been good for McCain, since Palin's initial uptick in the polls has been reversed in recent weeks.

"Politically, it was a pretty bad choice," Calvert said. "It is the single most damaging feature of his campaign."

Not everyone would agree with Calvert's analysis, of course.

Another leadership question is consistency.

"What has impressed me is the extent to which Obama has devised a campaign message and stuck to it," Calvert said. "The discipline reflects on Obama. It's takes such a great effort to stay on message."

In contrast, said Steven Puro, professor of political science at St. Louis University, McCain has "a series of inconsistent messages that changes from day to day."

He attributes that to McCain's back-and-forth swings between "deliberation and aggression."

"On economic matters, for instance," Puro said, "McCain seems to be deliberating, but he cannot decide between competing camps. Then, in his aggressive statements, he doesn't seem nuanced at all. In foreign policy areas, where he knows more, he has more nuanced positions."

Regarding Obama, Puro said, the Democratic candidate is "much more of an integrator of ideas. He comes at it with his own point of view, but he wants his advisers to challenge him."

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, got a reprimand of sorts from Obama, his running mate, for asserting Obama would be tested in foreign policy soon after his inauguration.

Would McCain, being older, more seasoned and sounding tougher on foreign policy, fare better?

Puro thinks not. "McCain is intellectually curious, but he has a quick flash point," Puro said. "A foreign leader who wants to test him may present a situation to see what he will do. This person may hope to get McCain to make a mistake."

A look at past presidents

In 1962, when John F. Kennedy was a new and relatively untested president, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev set up the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war.

In hindsight, historians generally agree Kennedy and his White House senior staff handled that very dangerous situation coolly and well.

Other presidents do not always rate too well on Lefton's matrix.

Lyndon Johnson was "Q1 all the way" - domineering and authoritarian with little inclination to listen to his advisers.

Richard Nixon was authoritarian, secretive and "withdrawn and couldn't engage people."

Dwight Eisenhower, in Lefton's mind, was another close-to-ideal president in the way he made decisions, which, as a supreme commander of allied forces in Europe during World War II., was the nature of his profession.

Eisenhower was open to his advisers before he made up his mind, Lefton said, then firm on sticking to his decisions and seeing they were carried out.

And this president's father, George H.W. Bush?

"He was Q4 (the best kind) during the Persian Gulf War," Lefton said, "but Q3 (he likes to please others too much) during much of the rest of his one term."

Lefton sees today's two candidates as each strong in one of his four leadership matrixes. 

While he's disappointed in McCain, in his choice of Palin and the in how he has run his campaign, Lefton calls McCain a "strong Q1" (authoritarian and domineering) with "some Q4" -- an ability to listen, gather ideas and provide steady leadership.

And Obama? "He has a good dose of Q4," which in Lefton's world is a high compliment.

But he did not reveal for whom he is voting this year.

Repps Hudson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.