Our View of Public Leadership

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!” ― Benjamin Franklin


Some view the American Presidency as the most powerful office in the free world. Serving 350 million people and managing over 2 million employees, the federal executive branch may be the world’s most influential, complicated and unwieldy public institution. But, we should not forget that the Presidency is only one of thousands of elected executive positions in state and local governments across the country.

Most of us belittle or disparage the federal government (or take it for granted), overlooking its indispensable role in protecting us from harm. In his latest book, The Fifth Risk, Michael Lewis writes that 70 percent of federal employees are involved with keeping us safe, managing or preventing the astonishing array of risks that threaten the American public—foreign adversaries, terrorists, financial failures, fire, severe weather, unsafe foods and drugs, disease, cyberattacks, pandemics and other calamities.

We cannot guarantee public safety or protect everyone from every risk, but we can prevent, mitigate or manage most of them. How? By planning and preparing for both known and unknown risks. By selecting the most qualified public leaders possible. By making sure that those who want to lead dedicate at least some time thinking seriously about how they will navigate the inevitable challenges ahead. As Dwight Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle … plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

The Education of Public Executives

History has taught us that a President’s resume is not everything. In 1856, James Buchanan won with the longest resume, but left behind a dismal presidency. In 1860, voters selected a candidate with the thinnest of resumes—Abraham Lincoln—who saved the union. In 1924, Herbert Hoover won with impressive private and public executive experience, but was paralyzed by the Great Depression. In 1945, upon FDR’s death, Harry Truman overcame his lack of executive experience to become a decisive president. Since Truman’s time, history has never ceased reminding us that leadership and experience matter.

As the challenges facing America have grown, both in scale and complexity, the demands on public executives also have grown. At the federal level, the Imperial Presidency emerged and with it, a nascent recognition that the office required much more than the tenacity (and luck) to win a national campaign. Like any big job, the Presidency requires strong leadership attributes, but it also requires preparation. No President can confront, prevent and, if necessary, manage potential crises without adequate preparation. Today, that is more evident than ever before.

In the last decade, Congress, prodded by Max Stier’s Partnership for Public Service, enacted three laws to facilitate effective transition planning. In 2010, Congress passed the Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act committing each major party’s presidential nominee to transition planning and granting each candidate office space, equipment and funding. In 2012, Congress reduced the presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation from 1,400 to 1,200 to expedite the transition. In 2015, Congress passed a law requiring the incumbent president to provide transition assistance to his or her successor.

In early 2016, there was considerable hope for an effective presidential transition. The Bush-Obama transition had gone reasonably well and the Obama administration, despite some noteworthy managerial missteps (e.g., the ACA rollout), gave the next administration an exhaustive guide to the federal agencies, the threats they would likely face and promising strategies for addressing them.

At the state and local levels, there are few (if any) executive transition laws. As a result, most candidates for executive office (e.g., Governor, mayor or county executive), avoid meaningful transition planning. Due to the all-consuming nature of political campaigns, most political strategists convince their clients (the candidates) to allocate every last dollar to the campaign. In addition, like Trump, many candidates fear that a visible transition process could jinx their campaigns. Other candidates, persuaded by their political teams, are reluctant to do anything that might draw “measuring the drapes” charges from their opponents.

A Glaring Failure to Prepare

In April 2016, when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie learned that Trump lacked a transition team, he asked to chair the campaign’s transition program, a request that Trump granted with some caveats (e.g., independent funding). From May to November, Christie raised ample funds for a 140-person transition team that set an orderly course for the Trump administration, producing white papers, executive orders, implementation plans and transition schedules, and vetted candidates for every key executive position.

As the election approached, Trump’s disdain for transition planning became more evident. At one point, he reportedly told Christie, “Chris, you and I are so smart that we can leave the victory party two hours early and do the transition ourselves.” At another point, Trump shut it down, arguing that the transition was diverting badly-needed campaign funds. Trump changed his mind only after being convinced that terminating the transition effort would be viewed as conceding defeat. A mere three days after the election, Trump fired Christie and the rest of the transition team.

Dismissing Christie was but the first error. President-Elect Trump then made another impulsive decision, one driven by instinct, arrogance and the kind of metric that perhaps only a stable genius could grasp. He ordered the painstaking, invaluable work of his presidential transition team to be thrown in the trash. While this decision received little attention at the time, it would prove to be fateful, one with ominous implications for his administration and, as it turned out, the nation.

Trump’s decision to reject the transition work remains a decision from which his administration has never recovered. Unfounded claims, ill-conceived executive orders, untested policy missives, unnecessary political scrums, divisive rallies and historically high turnover rates all can be tied to a failure to prepare.  As Max Stier has argued, a bungled transition is a one-way street to a bungled administration. The bizarre response to the COVID-19 crisis—featuring the daily improv briefing—should not surprise us.

Choosing and Training Good Public Leaders

Too many American voters have allowed politics to short-change governance (much like they have allowed legislatures to hijack redistricting). Unless we are willing to tolerate bad governance (and the suffering or death of innocent people), we cannot continue to elect those who lack the essential qualities of leadership.

  1. We must expect more of our leaders. Let’s redefine leadership to encompass the following characteristics:
  • Vision – the ability to peer past the next election cycle, articulate a clear view of what constitutes future success and craft an orderly, sensible and flexible agenda for getting there
  • Honesty – an instinctive commitment to the 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 front lines)
  • 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
  • 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

Every time we vote for a public executive—a mayor, county executive, governor or president—we should certainly ask if that candidate will champion our political views. But, it is far more important for us to ask if that person possesses the requisite characteristics of leadership. If we love our country, we should cast our precious vote for those who can lead, regardless of their political party or philosophy. For democracy to prosper, we must select public executives who can lead and manage, even if their political views differ from our own.

  1. We must require our public executives to be prepared. We must give them cover to do the right thing. We should do this by enacting laws in every state—and every city or county with strong executive forms—mandating and adequately funding an executive transition process. These laws may vary by jurisdiction, but they must require each major party candidate to have a transition program. And they should require such programs to begin at least three months before the election (six months for governors and big city mayors). Every major corporation invests in executive preparation. Why not governments?


Closing Remarks

We must demand more of our public executives, be they Democrats or Republicans.

The 2020 Democratic primaries began with several candidates with demonstrable executive records, including those with gubernatorial experience like Bullock, Hickenlooper and Inslee, and those with mayoral experience like Booker, Buttigieg and DeBlasio. While most of these candidates faded early, the Democratic nominee will be one who served eight years as Vice President and decades in the US Senate. The extent to which Democratic voters based their votes on executive experience is debatable.

In 2016, voters had a stark choice between a reality TV show star and businessman (one who ran a small, closely-held real estate business) and a former Secretary of State, US Senator and First Lady. When the reality TV star won, most Americans hoped for the best, that he would find his inner Chester Arthur, rising to the demands of the job and the hopes of the American people. Regrettably, we learned early that this was not to be. When the President-Elect sacked his Transition Chair and shelved his transition plan, we should have known that we were in for a rocky ride. If we didn’t know then, we most certainly know now.