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Perishable Thoughts —
What Is Leadership?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 3, 2008

Now that President-elect Obama has unveiled his national security team, he is receiving praise from the right:

‘By far and away the best I think we could have imagined,” a former Bush administration official tells National Review Online about Monday’s unveiling of Barack Obama’s national-security team.

While the left is feeling cheated:

Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one.

The Obama national security team followed in the steps of the decision of President Elect-Obama to appoint mostly veterans of the Clinton administration to his economic team.

When challenged as to how the appointment of numerous long-time veterans in both national security and finance could in fact be a harbinger of the “change” candidate Obama promised Americans, the president-elect explained that he would, personally, be the force for change in his administration:

“Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost,” he told reporters at his third press conference in as many days. “It comes from me. That’s my job, is to provide a vision in terms of where we are going, and to make sure, then, that my team is implementing.”

Which sets us up perfectly to look at today’s Perishable Thought — one of several quotes that have been sent on by Scott Danner, Chief Operating Officer, Liberty Fruit Co., Inc., which addresses the nature of leadership:

“Leadership is the ability to decide what is to be done, and then to get others to want to do it.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

(Spoken to author Arthur Larson by President Eisenhower during a conversation on leadership in 1956)
Eisenhower: The President Nobody Knew
By Arthur Larson
Charles Scribner & Sons, 1968
210 Pages Pg. 15 and 21
1968

The nature of leadership has long fascinated readers here. Our piece, Perishable Thoughts — Youth, Experience And The Subprime Crisis, which highlighted a quote on hiring and promotion from Dee Hock, the founder and former CEO of Visa Credit Card Association, has been the most widely e-mailed of our Perishable Thoughts selections.

We also dealt with leadership in a number of pieces in the early days of the Perishable Pundit, including:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Leadership

Pundit’s Mailbag — More On Leadership

Pundit’s Mailbag — Where’s The Passion?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Wild Oat’s Harris Talks About Mentorship

This quote dates from September of 1956 when Arthur Larson, an author, law professor at Cornell, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Under Secretary of Labor under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, attended a discussion on leadership by President Eisenhower. The discussion, held in the midst of his re-election campaign, provided an opportunity for President Eisenhower — who had become quite annoyed by the ceaseless attacks on his leadership abilities by Adlai Stevenson, the democratic candidate for President — to explain his position.

Eisenhower didn’t think much of Adlai Stevenson. Though he acknowledged that Stevenson was a great speech writer and presenter, he argued that if speaking prowess were qualification enough to be President, “We ought to elect Ernest Hemingway.”

We understand why Barack Obama has selected the team he has. These are not jobs amenable to “on the job training,” and the only experienced Democrats of working age are really those who worked in the Clinton administration. It is also true that we have a delicate situation both internationally and financially and that a smooth transition is very important. So if there are Bush holdovers such as Robert Gates at Secretary of Defense who are doing a good job and are only nominally Republican, it makes sense to keep them .

Still we think hidden in Eisenhower’s quote is a bit of a problem for Barack Obama. To “get others to want to do something” is always a challenge. To get experts in the field who disagree with you to change their mind is almost impossible.

Antonin Scalia, one of the Associate Justices on the US Supreme Court, gave an interview in which he explained that the public’s image of the justices deliberating is not true. He said that all the justices had spent their lives studying these questions and that it was almost impossible to persuade any of the justices that they were wrong.

Many would hold that “Personnel is Policy.” Indeed one of the more sensible reasons for voting for one candidate over another is the thousands of lower level political operatives who get placed in positions that deal with issues which never reach the President.

In other words, Dwight Eisenhower’s point might apply to the public masses or even to a general inspiring his army of privates — but not to high level experts.

There is another saying in the lexicon of recruitment: “Never hire someone you can’t afford to fire.”

Is Barack Obama setting himself up for a fiery resignation down the road? Or is he the shrewdest of all, recalling still another adage: “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Many thanks to Scott Danner and Liberty Fruit Co. for leading us to discuss this important question.

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