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My view: Presidential succession should not be a political game show

By Dave Ulrich

Published: Sunday, Feb. 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, take part in a Republican presidential debate Monday Jan. 23, 2012, at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla.

Associated Press

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The current Republican debates have become the latest episode of "Presidential Apprentice, Debating With the Candidates," or "Survivor of D.C." We wait to see who has the most clever one-liners delivered with the right timing and style to capture our emotions and win the Battle of the Nominees.

But running for president should not become a reality TV show. It is a process of selecting the man or woman who will govern the largest economic and military country in the world and who will set the tone for how our country governs and operates.

How can we rethink the presidential selection process? Presidential selection is about succession planning. In business, almost every company has a rigorous talent and succession review process. In a recent CEO succession review, the CEO reviewed the three candidates who might best replace him.

He started by describing the qualifications of candidate A, B and C. About 20 minutes into this discussion, I stopped him. I asked him to review the business conditions that would be present when the candidate would likely replace him. As he reviewed these conditions, it became clear what the context required of the future leader. With criteria defined, we were then able to match the candidate to these conditions. The best succession planning systems do not begin with candidates, but with conditions in which the candidates will work.

If we look at presidential political history, we see how this plays out. In 2008, the country was in an economic crisis and social funk. We needed a president who would inspire hope and confidence in a future that looked bleak at the time. President Barack Obama filled this void.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton left the country economically stable, but with the office of the president in moral disarray. We needed a president who would not disgrace the office. President George W. Bush filled this need.

In 1991, the post-Reagan/Bush years needed a president who would capture the enthusiasm of the '90s and bring charisma into the office. Clinton filled this opportunity.

In 1980, the Iran hostages and world uncertainty required a strong willed president who would stand for a set of clear values and had the resolve to act on them. President Ronald Reagan met these conditions.

In 1976, after Nixon/Ford years, we needed a president who would bring a sense of morality and ethics to the office. President Jimmy Carter became this choice. And so forth.

Presidential succession planning should not just be about the candidates' virtues, vices, records and abilities, it should begin with a careful understanding of the conditions affecting the country and then matching the right candidate to those conditions.

So, what are the conditions affecting the country? Let me propose three. First, economic stagnation. The economy is not bouncing back. The recovery is lingering with slow job creation, higher debt and fewer levers for government to pull to ignite economic prosperity.

Second, social splintering. There is an increasing lack of civility in social and political discourse, with each side defending their turf more than solving problems. The increased media access and visibility creates extreme public statements with less private compromise.

Third, erosion of trust. Confidence in government legislators and business leaders is at an all-time low. In the absence of trusting others, we become increasingly self-interested and unwilling to give others the right to enact policies and practices that shape our lives.

What does this mean for presidential succession planning? How do we find a leader who will overcome economic stagnation, social splintering and erosion of trust? In our research on leadership, we need leaders who perform leadership basics well: shape a vision, execute and get things done, manage people, build future people and have personal credibility.

But, it seems that we need a unique leader for these particular conditions. This is a leader who is more a pragmatist than an ideologue, who works with others more than for him or herself and who can accomplish simple things that build confidence more than advocate grand schemes that create cynicism.

We have a great example of this type of shared leadership. Nancy Reagan shares a story of when President Reagan was in the hospital after he was shot. He was in the hospital and nobody was allowed to see him. But Tip O'Neill came in, the Speaker of the House at the time who was his political adversary.

He took off his shoes and went into President Reagan's hospital room, and he knelt down on the floor and started reciting the Lord's Prayer. President Reagan started reciting it with him, and they said it together with Nancy Reagan, who was witnessing this. And then Tip O'Neill stood up, kissed President Reagan on the cheek, and said, "I love you, Mr. President." President Reagan said, "I love you, too."

Maybe it is time to rethink our presidential selection process less as a political game show and more as serious and thoughtful succession planning. Let's think about the conditions in which the president will work and find the candidate who can turnaround a stagnant economy, who can work across social and political differences to solve problems and who can reinstall trust.

Dave Ulrich is a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. He is also a partner at the RBL Group.

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