When I was in my late 20’s and loving my work as a lawyer/ investment banker for a large NY investment banking firm, I was summoned suddenly by THE Senior Partner, who said “Frank, I want you to take over the Investment Management Department.” Our brief conversation went something like this:
ME: “Thanks, but that is not what I want to do!”
SP: “I don’t think you heard me correctly. I was not asking you; I was telling you.”
ME: “If I can continue with my deals at the same time, and see that what needs to be done actually gets done, I should consider it.”
SP: “That is all any good exec ever does. OK and thank you!”
By now you’re no doubt wondering what on earth this personal story has to with a POTUS?
An executive first needs to see/establish what needs to be done; set out a process to address those needs and then follow up sufficiently to ensure that it gets done.
First, Presidents have very little time to spread over a large world, and it is difficult for anyone to do many serious things simultaneously.
Second, even the most experienced, well-educated and smartest Presidents cannot possibly know, or even learn, enough about any one subject to make a useful difference on a personal level compared with the experts around them.
Third, their primary job is to hear out solid well selected advisors, weigh conflicting opinions and, ultimately, make good choices.
The well-kept secret is that most ‘Presidential decisions’ NEVER actually reach the President. They are thrashed out by the Cabinet and staff experts at lower levels. When and if a consensus emerges, if the President agrees, that is promulgated as a Presidential decision.
If no consensus can be found, then the President is fully informed and has to use his/her wits to ask a lot of tough questions and come to a final decision.
Effective Presidents must begin by painting in broad strokes, outlining goals and ambitions on critical issues like taxes, war and peace, tariffs and economic leadership that his team can use as the framework for developing specific plans.
While I am not a real expert in how a POTUS does or should work, I have seen it up closely, read about it a lot and talked to many people who have been far closer to a working President.
What I have learned is that the job of a POTUS is more like that of an orchestra conductor – bringing myriad pieces/instruments, individually insignificant in themselves, together for a greater purpose. For example, the conductor need not know how to play the violin, but she does need to know how to make a violinist play the violin properly in concert with dozens of others, as well as other instruments.
Effective Presidents must be broad gauge managers of large complex processes (like some Governors and other large institutions), which no one can do well enough alone, thoughtfully and properly.
The nature of the job, ironically perhaps, should have served as a bulwark against the worst instincts of our current President. With vast stretches of “executive” (read, television) time throughout his day, his legendary disdain for reading, and an apparent allergy to learning, the simple truth is this President doesn’t deal with real issues seriously very much at all.
Mercifully, our government can largely carry on without him, almost certainly to better ends than would be achieved by his more active and substantive engagement in his job. But that is not enough.
For this reason, I am amazed at how little the new candidates for POTUS talk about how they would go about the job they are pursuing and mostly know very little about.
We should be asking ALL of them a lot of tough questions. If all they have are lame, minimal answers we should draw a line through them IMMEDIATELY.
The candidate who takes the best orchestration approach – who also likes to read and learn, who values the counsel of experts, and who acknowledges the limits of their own ability to know and do everything —should be our next President.
People can and should know what they stand for, whether they have instinctive voter appeal and whether they are electable.
But, first, last and always do they know how to do the JOB!?