Candidates, Tell Us How You Lead


What’s missing in political debates? OK, that might be a dangerous way to phrase it. But a Governing magazine columnist offers one strong suggestion – that questions about executive leadership and decision-making style would be helpful additions for learning more about the candidates.

If I had my way, every presidential or gubernatorial or mayoral debate would include a required question designed to illuminate the candidates’ executive leadership and decision-making style. Of course, there still could be the usual questions concerning the tax returns of the candidates, or their stand on marriage, or whether they think that food stamps make people overly dependent on government. Above and beyond those questions, however, here are some (by no means an exhaustive list) that I would argue are more important. These suggestions focus on skills and behaviors relevant to governing (as opposed to politicking):

  • What qualities do you look for in members of your executive team? Are there particular qualities that you are seeking for all positions? How important is it that those selected for positions have deep knowledge or expertise in the relevant area? (Does the secretary of the Treasury, for example, have to have Wall Street experience—or would a track record of sound economic judgment, compliance with tax laws and demonstrated management skills be sufficient?)
  • Are you tolerant, even encouraging, of dissenting views? Or are you unable to manage yourself in the face of pushback, and therefore discourage it in those who serve you?
  • More generally, how do you use evidence when you make decisions? When pursuing a particular policy course, will you consult with stakeholders and available data and analysis, both inside and outside of government, prior to making a decision? Which factor matters more: whether an approach has proven effective or whether it keeps a political constituency happy?

There is frequently a tremendous disconnect between what it takes to be elected and what it takes to govern. Sometimes candidates’ campaigns do provide glimpses of executive style, but usually unwittingly. When Newt Gingrich’s entire campaign staff quit in June of 2011, they cited his lack of discipline as a reason for their mass resignation. But we need more than these rare, chance indicators to go on when we are choosing the people who will run our governments.

The fact that leadership, and executive style, are not discussed in political campaigns is just further evidence of the inadequacy of our prevailing political discourse. As a constituency, we fail to take responsibility for the reality that when we elect a president, a governor, a mayor or a county executive we are electing a leader-in-chief and a decision maker-in-chief. Trying to gain insight into how that leadership would be exercised—and the extent to which data, analysis, and reasoned debate would influence decision-making—seems a topic worthy of at least one question in a campaign debate.

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