Is America Looking for the Right Qualities in a President?

The U.S. primary system places too much focus on a candidates past experience.


Sydney Finkelstein is a Professor of Strategy and Leadership at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College

Every four years America engages in a long drawn-out process to select a candidate for president from the two major parties. We have a system of primaries and caucuses designed to vet contenders through an array of debates, town hall meetings, media interviews, and lunch counter conversations. But how good is this system of executive selection? And does it help us identify the person with the right leaderships skills to be president?

First off, let's just note that the American primary process is not how others do it. In other countries, like Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, the process is much quicker and arguably doesn't produce any less effective a result. So return on electoral investment does not seem particularly strong.

[See pictures of the 2012 GOP candidates]

More importantly, the primary system tests whether candidates can articulate a point of view under pressure, take a punch as well as give it, master the art of the sound bite, communicate a theory of what they would do if elected, and have the incredible stamina to keep the intense pace required. Most of these "skills" revolve around communication effectiveness, surely an important attribute for any leader. And we know that there is value in being the "Great Communicator."  Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama all excelled on this dimension.

But is this the best we can do? What are we missing that we need in our presidents? In my experience studying and working with both successful and failing leaders for over 20 years, there are two attributes that stand out: self-awareness and adaptability under pressure. And the primary system does nothing to vet candidates on these capabilities.

Consider self-awareness. This is the idea that we need to understand who we are, why we think the way that we do, and as a result, what some of our biases might be when we make important decisions. For example, one of the most contentious issues this primary season (and all others before it, for that matter) is whether candidates have the right experience. This is at the heart of Mitt Romney's case for the presidency, that his business experience is just what we need to turnaround a troubled economy. And it may be, but I'd like to know whether Romney understands, really understands, the differences between running a government and running a business, and whether he believes his experience at Bain Capital is directly transferable to the presidency. There will be aspects of both jobs that will be similar, but there will be important differences as well, and the self-aware candidate will be alert to both.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Adaptability may be even more important. Looking back at the tenures of recent presidents, was it the case that they knew the most important issues they faced in advance? The answer is no. During the primary campaign for President George W. Bush, did anyone know that 9/11 was just around the corner? Did President Kennedy know the Cuban Missile Crisis was about to happen? Even during President Obama's, primary season the depth of the financial crisis was not fully understood (and arguably did not reach an apex until September 2008 when Lehmann went into bankruptcy).

The point is that we cannot predict what will happen in the next four years, and so we cannot easily select a president with the most appropriate experience to address the key issues of the next four years.

So what do we want in a president?  We want someone who is open-minded and adaptable, who can make adjustments quickly and not be tied to past decisions that no longer work. Someone who is cool under fire, won't panic, but also won't be complacent. Rather than spend so much time worrying about whether our candidates have the right experience, we should focus a little more on whether they have the right makeup to deal with unexpected change. We might not know what those unexpected changes will be right now, but odds are high that these changes will make, or break, the next president.

  • See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.
  • See pictures of Obama behind the scenes
  • See a slide show of 10 things Obama can learn from Clinton.