EXPERIENCE AND LEADERSHIP

E. J. Dionne asks–but, oddly, doesn’t answer–the question, Should Our Leaders Be Amateurs?

He recounts examples from modern American political history and notes that, especially at the local level, we’ve generally expressed a preferance for the “mechanic” model–someone who knows how things work and can keep them running/fix them–but occasionally swing the other way and go for the exciting outsider.

The fact that “experience” is itself a mushy concept becomes even clearer if you consider this question: Was George W. Bush’s six years’ experience as a governor sufficient to prepare him for the presidency? Ask any dozen people and I bet you an old Nixon button that their answers break down almost entirely along party lines — proving that experience can have little to do with our view of “experience.”

That we are terribly ambivalent about experience is brought home by our vacillation between the Cincinnatus and Richard J. Daley models of leadership. Our hearts regularly go to the proud and independent person who has never been soiled by politics or compromise and comes to our rescue out of nowhere. This sort of character (Jesse Ventura played him on TV) appeals to our mistrust of politics and our desire to escape it.

The Daley model, as in the legendary Chicago mayor, plays to our heads. We want someone who knows the ropes, can get things done, and has been inside the system long enough to know what works and what doesn’t. We’re not inspired by such leaders, but we do like it when they clean the streets, fix health care or balance the budget.

Of course, even this view of leadership is based on the unitary actor myth: no governor or president can do any of these things without the active cooperation of the legislature.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.