Choosing a President

Criteria for Selecting Leaders During a Crisis


  • The 2020 election truly is the most important election in at least a generation
  • Like any big job, the Presidency requires proven leadership traits and thorough preparation and planning
  • Planning matters—executive transition experts view a bungled transition process as a one-way street to a bungled administration
  • The pandemic underscores the need for steadfast leadership, forces us to rethink what strong leadership is and vividly reveals what strong leadership is not
  • Every President should possess certain core traits, like honesty, humility, respect, tolerance, compassion and reliability, especially during times of crisis
  • This election, we should suspend our partisan and ideological convictions, and vote for the survival of our democracy and our people


For most of us, November’s election cannot come soon enough. After months of self-isolation, pandemic-related deaths, police abuse, urban disorder, roaming paramilitary groups, toxic tweets, vapid charges and countercharges—and the most dispiriting debate in history—we are exhausted.

Every four years, we are told that an election is the most important in history. That our future will be squandered or saved by the next President. Looking back, it is clear that all elections are important, but some are more important than others. While sweeping historical judgements may be premature, it does appear that the 2020 election will loom larger in the history books than the 1988 Dukakis v. Bush race.

Max Stier, the President of the Partnership for Public Service, and one of our nation’s leading voices for presidential transition planning, has argued that a bungled transition is a one-way street to a bungled administration. We can point to many examples of this principle in our own states and communities, but today’s White House offers the most blatant example—one that will be long remembered.

A Forsaken Transition

The Presidency is a daunting job, perhaps an overwhelming one. Like any big job, the Presidency requires proven leadership traits as well as conscientious, thorough preparation. No President can anticipate, face and, if necessary, guide the nation through historic crises without adequate preparation.

Congress has taken steps to encourage presidential candidates to prepare for the Presidency. In 2010, it enacted the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act committing the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees to transition planning. In 2012, Congress reduced the presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation. In 2015, Congress mandated that every incumbent President assist the President-Elect’s transition planning.

Pursuant to these federal transition laws, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie volunteered to chair the GOP transition team in 2016. For months, a 140-person transition team did the painstaking work that we have come to expect of a presidential transition team, preparing white papers and transition plans, drafting executive orders for the first term, vetting candidates for key executive positions and charting a structured, coherent course for the new administration.

When the unexpected happened, and the GOP candidate won the election, the President-Elect (only three days after the election) unceremoniously terminated the entire transition team. Worse yet, he rashly and inexplicably scrapped the presidential transition team’s invaluable work. Like Homer Simpson, the new President “knew” he could do the job better than his predecessor, without any preparation. While this breathtaking decision received little notice at the time, it would prove fateful, with dark implications for the new administration and the nation.

Unfortunately, the failure of new public executives to prepare (an act of governing malpractice) is not limited to the current President. At the state and local levels (unlike the federal government), we have few transition mandates for public executives, especially before election day. As a result, we routinely elect thousands of state and local executives and expect them to hit the ground running with little (if any) pre-inaugural planning and preparation.

A Panicked Administration

The pandemic serves as a poignant reminder that America’s challenges require strong, steadfast leadership. But it also teaches us what strong leadership is—and isn’t.

NBC’s The Office afforded us many hours of amusement, but it also showed us what bad leadership looks like. It used parody to illuminate the consequences of mistaking theater for planning and instinct for wisdom. The White House’s pandemic response would be similarly comical had its impact not been so heartbreaking.

When so many die, and so many suffer the ravages of lost loved ones, friends, neighbors, homes, jobs and health, we must reassess what we expect of our leaders. Throughout our history, we have been blessed with strong leaders who, regardless of ideology, put the nation and people first. Empathetic leaders who listened and changed course in the face of new facts. Inspiring leaders with enduring traits—love of country, honesty, humility, compassion, respect, tolerance and reliability.

It also is vital for us to grasp what leadership is not, especially in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. Most of us are receptive to those who tell us what we want to hear. During normal times, for example, we may find some assurance in wishful thinking, phony cheerleading and exaggerated swagger. But, when disaster upends our lives, we need real leadership. When we’re threatened, we don’t need bullying, bluster and lying. We need our President to shepherd us through the crisis, not be the crisis.

For many years, experts on leadership—public or private—will use this presidency as a cautionary tale. They will point to the sheer magnitude of human suffering. They will recount how the pandemic brought the world’s richest country to its knees. They will note how self-indulgent, deceptive and erratic leadership put people at risk. They may even show clips of a President awkwardly holding a Bible before a church after ordering the use of tear gas and federal troops to clear a public square of peaceful protesters—once again mistaking theater for leadership.

The President’s decision to reject the transition team’s work remains a self-inflicted wound from which his administration has never recovered. As he calls for law and order in America’s cities, he has forsaken order in his own White House. Impetuous executive orders, unprecedented administrative instability, constant fear-mongering, divisive rallies and, more recently, flagrant super spreader events. There are many reasons for such behavior, but the failure to prepare did not help.

Choosing a Leader

Too many American voters have allowed politics to derail governance. If we truly want governance that will protect us and our children, we must elect leaders who possess the essential qualities of leadership, regardless of their partisan affiliation.

Every day, we make decisions about other people. We choose friends, acquaintances, employees and contractors. We make these decisions using implicit criteria. When we choose a mechanic to fix our car, we seek one who is trustworthy and reliable. We ask our friends for recommendations. And, if it doesn’t work out, we pick someone else. Shouldn’t we use the same approach when electing a President?

What criteria should we use to select a leader? At a minimum, every public leader should possess the following characteristics:

  • Patriotism – a relentless devotion to representative democracy, the graceful acceptance of election results, a fervent antagonism to domestic terrorism and a fierce loyalty to the Bill of Rights
  • Vision – the ability to peer past the next election cycle, articulate a compelling image of what constitutes future success and craft an orderly, sensible and flexible agenda for getting there
  • Honesty – an instinctive commitment to truth and transparency, not only when communicating with others, but when looking in the mirror (self-awareness)
  • Humility – a recognition of one’s inherent intellectual limits coupled with an insatiable curiosity about the world and a relentless drive to learn from others (especially those closest to the front lines)
  • Respect – a commitment to representing all constituents, not just supporters, a willingness to listen to differing views, an acceptance of civic norms and constructive relations with political foes
  • Tolerance – an appreciation for the value and potential of diversity, a reverence for different people, cultures and views and the demonstrated ability to overcome any innate biases in making decisions for all
  • Compassion – an abiding decency (if not morality), a deep empathy for others (especially the neediest among us) and an innate sense of how to frame every issue and decision in light of that empathy
  • Reliability – a measured temperament, the internal discipline to absorb criticism, set aside any human urge to react and the wisdom to learn from that criticism, and a steady hand during times of crisis
  • Pragmatism – the ability to distinguish the possible from the aspirational, confront crises, seize opportunities, build consensus and convert priorities into measurable action and enduring solutions

What about the partisan, ideological biases that fuel our politics? As citizens (and voters), we should think about policy. And those of us with fervent policy beliefs should certainly consider a candidate’s policy agenda, especially in normal times. Afterall, it is eminently reasonable to favor a candidate for public office who will champion our political views.

Still, there are a few times when a candidate’s character is far more important than his or her policy positions—and 2020 is one of those times.

In a democracy, most of us understand that our policy views will not always prevail. We accept setbacks and resolve to prevail the next time. Most of us also know that, from time to time, finding common ground among political adversaries is a prerequisite to future prosperity. During normal times, it is prudent to select public executives who share our views, but also possess the leadership attributes to unify factions, build consensus and solve problems even when the solutions are incompatible with their own political views.

During a crisis, it is not only prudent, but essential, to choose leaders who possess the core attributes of leadership. During a crisis, our policy views become secondary. In fact, if the crisis is not vanquished, our policy views could very well become moot. A nation that fails to defeat a crisis may not survive to resume policy battles, let alone negotiate compromises across the policy divide.

This election, there is one paramount question. Who can lead us back to normal times? If we love our country, we should cast our vote for those who can best lead, regardless of their political party or philosophy. If we survive this crisis, we can return to our partisan or ideological camps next year. But, first, we must survive it.

Shelter from the Storm

The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, 

but rather in her ability to repair her faults. – Alexis de Tocqueville

Far too many of us regard elections as nuisances. When asked, we respond with indifference or nonchalance. We don’t take them seriously. We offer flimsy excuses or cavalier quips. They’re all the same. My vote won’t make a difference. It doesn’t really matter. I may or may not vote, but, if I do, I’ll just vote for Homer Simpson.

In 2016, faced with the stark choice between a reality TV promoter and a former Secretary of State and US Senator, voters (more precisely, the Electoral College) chose the showboat. Over 210,000 deaths later, and in the wake of untold suffering, a decimated economy, urban violence, frayed global alliances and incalculable damage to our national prestige, it is fair to wonder if we would have been any worse off with Homer Simpson.

We Americans have been better than most at recognizing our mistakes and changing course. Are we big enough to admit our mistake this time?

If you do nothing else between today and November 3rd, vote. Vote by mail or in person depending on your circumstances, but vote. And, when you fill out your ballot, set aside your ideology, partisanship and policy views as best you can. Vote as an American, for civility, for democracy, for safety, for progress, for those who will follow us. Vote for candidates who care more about their county than themselves and possess the character, values and wisdom to meet the tests of leadership.

And don’t expect our next leaders to solve every problem. Instead, choose leaders who will at least try to solve those problems. Who will bring us together to find common ground. Tell us the truth. Help us face and overcome our fears. Appeal to our best instincts. Lead us to safety. And give us shelter from the storm…