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Leadership and the New Bush Administration

by Jeffery J. Matthews on Dec 19, 2000

Jeffery J. Matthews

If the political pundits are to be believed, the next president of the
United States is destined for failure. By implication, historians can begin
to prepare George W. Bush's place alongside other ineffective chief
executives such as Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan.

These dire projections, routinely made by "talking head" journalists,
scholars, attorneys and politicians, rest upon a simplistic and
shortsighted understanding of leadership and history.

These observers argue that such a close election will deprive the new
president of broad popular support. Moreover, the rancorous legal wrangling
over dimples, chads and absentee ballots has raised the ire of diehard
partisans who will try to weaken the president by carping about his
legitimacy. Worse still, the argument goes, the next chief executive will
be hamstrung by the evenly divided Congress.

While it is certainly true that these initial circumstances may make
governance by the Bush administration difficult, the political prophets of
the day fail to appreciate that leadership is not static. Leadership,
presidential or otherwise, is a dynamic process that revolves around three
complex elements — the leader, the followers and the situation.

When contemplating leadership, most people focus primarily, if not
exclusively, on the leader. Certainly the leader plays a pivotal role in
the process. Too often however there is a false presumption that the
leader, or in this case the next president, is a predictable,
one-dimensional figure, acting in a vacuum.

But a leader's behavior and ultimate effectiveness depend upon multiple
factors. There are, for example, many facets to his or her personality,
intellect and experience. Furthermore, the American presidency has varied
and vast sources of power, which can be wielded in different ways to
influence followers and the general course of events. We have only to look
at Harry S. Truman, a relatively unknown figure when he became president,
whose administration ended World War II and created the Marshall Plan, or
John F. Kennedy, who was elected by the narrowest of margins, to see that
men with no "mandates" can govern effectively.

While most television pundits give short shrift to the numerous dimensions
of the presidency, they do appear to be fixated on the second major
component of the leadership process: the followers.

Political commentators are rightfully focusing attention on the role of the
next Congress. To lead successfully, the president needs cooperation from
the legislative branch. Despite the even balance of power in the Senate and
House, some level of cooperation with the chief executive is possible. Both
political parties, for example, are already feeling public pressure to find
grounds for unity and compromise. Citizens will expect Congress to follow
the president's lead.

Analysts would do well to grant more attention to the potential power of
what Theodore Roosevelt called the bully pulpit. A president can
effectively influence Congress by galvanizing follower support outside of
Washington, D.C. Should the public determine that the president's political
opponents in Congress are impediments to progress, it could tilt the
legislative power balance in favor of the executive in the mid-term elections.
Such a development would reveal the importance of the third major element
in the leadership process: the situation. The most common and serious
mistake made by today's presidential prognosticators is their failure to
appreciate how quickly leadership conditions can change. Indeed, they can
change drastically.

When George H. W. Bush was elected president in November 1988, who
predicted that the nation would soon be embroiled in a major war in the
Middle East? Who in 1988 predicted that Bush would come to enjoy public
approval ratings in excess of 80 percent? Who in 1988 predicted that Bush
would fail to win reelection because of a faltering American economy?

Faulty and even pessimistic predictions are not uncommon in American
presidential history. Few contemporaries imagined that Truman, Kennedy,
Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt would emerge as transformational
leaders. Only a broad understanding of these leaders, their followers and
their situations can explain their effectiveness.

In short, current political handicappers lack an adequate appreciation of
leadership and American history. Their forecasts, based on limited
knowledge of future events, are hardly reliable.

Leadership is a dynamic process involving unique leaders and followers
living in a world of shifting conditions and priorities. Because our
information about the next four years is so limited, it borders on the
ridiculous to speculate on the effectiveness of a Bush presidency.

Jeffrey J. Matthews teaches leadership at the School of Business and Leadership at the University of Puget Sound. He is the author of the "Alanson B. Houghton: Ambassador of the New Era" (2004) and a writer for the History News Service.