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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Look Past the Political Rhetoric: It’s Leadership That Counts

For the next two weeks the American public will be besieged with political rhetoric, as voters try to decide who should be the next president. This week it´s all about Barack Obama, and next week the focus will be on John McCain. Honestly speaking, we may get a good look at the politics of these candidates, but we won´t get much insight at all into the kind of leaders they would be. What should matter is the authentic leadership of the next president, not political skills in projecting an image for voters.

We´ve been fooled before by political rhetoric. Remember the “compassionate conservatism” campaign in 2000 of George W. Bush? He proved to be neither compassionate nor conservative. In 1992 Bill Clinton ran on a health care platform of “managed competition” that turned out to be anything but competitive and almost sank his presidency. Going farther back in history, Lyndon Johnson envisioned in 1964 a Great Society and instead got us mired in Vietnam. In 1968 Richard Nixon promised to “win the peace in Vietnam,” and wound up extending the war to all of Southeast Asia until 1974.

Bottom line: don´t judge politicians on their promises. Judge them on their leadership.

What kind of leaders would John McCain and Barack Obama be as president? The good news is that both of them are authentic leaders. They have openly shared their life stories with the American people. Both have dealt with severe crucibles: McCain with his ordeal as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, and Obama with the absence of his father and confusion over his racial identity as a teenager. With the notable exception of McCain´s marital infidelity to his first wife, both candidates have lived lives of integrity and operate from a clear set of principles.

Before we can decide who to vote for, we need to know much more about the kind of leader each would be in the world´s most powerful office. By examining their backgrounds and their campaign organizations, we can gain crucial insights into this question.

All his life John McCain has been a solo performer: as a fighter pilot, a prisoner-of-war, a Congressional aide, Congressman, and U.S. Senator. In the U.S. Senate he has frequently stood against the Republican Party on issues like campaign financing and sided with Democrats like Senators Edward Kennedy and Joe Lieberman. Thus, he has developed the well-earned image of a maverick.

Since announcing his candidacy for president, McCain´s campaign has been anything but well-organized. His organization has experienced lots of turnover, frequent resignations, terminations, and regular shifts in focus. McCain the candidate has often agreed on strategy and positions with his staff, only to abandon them the next day. Only recently has his campaign seemed to enjoy some clarity with the addition of former members of the Bush-Rove team. In the past few weeks, they have successfully shifted McCain´s focus to attacks on his opponent and to national security issues, as his statements have become clearer and more concise.

Through all this, McCain operates more like an entrepreneur than an executive: outspoken, direct, and creative, but often leaving a trail of messes that need to be cleaned up after him. Projecting McCain into the White House, one could expect a few clear messages emanating from the president, who would react quickly to crises. However, this would likely be accompanied with lots of turnover and instability in his cabinet and White House staff.

In contrast, Barack Obama got his early training as a community organizer. He has translated that experience into a massive field team that reflects a bottoms-up, empowered organization. His key central staff members have been with him since the beginning of his campaign, as his team has experienced virtually no turnover, dissention, or organizational problems. Obama himself set the standard of operation at the outset, telling his people he wouldn´t tolerate dissertation and internal squabbles, earning the label, “No Drama Obama.”

As his candidacy progressed, he has expanded his central team and successfully married it to his field organization. His organization looks more like a growing corporate organization like Google or Intel: a strong central core married to a creative group of individuals building off the internet.

Projecting this forward into the White House, one would expect a disciplined staff around Obama, linked to empowered people throughout the government carrying out multiple initiatives. Taking on a broad set of initiatives, Obama´s messages would be more nuanced and more complex than McCain´s. Whereas McCain is a pragmatist, Obama is a visionary.

How would these two men respond to the pressure of surprise events like September 11, Hurricane Katrina, or the Cuban Missile Crisis? McCain would rely heavily on his own instincts, rather than the advice of his team, and would be decisive and possibly impulsive. Obama, in contrast, would quickly gather a group of experts around him, listen carefully to their advice, integrate it into his own thinking, and make decisions that were more nuanced.

Comparing these candidates to previous presidents, McCain will operate more like Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan, while Obama will operate more like John F. Kennedy or Dwight Eisenhower.

In deciding their choice for the next president of the United States, voters should ignore the rhetoric and determine what kind of leader our country needs at this crucial time in our history.