No doubt, we need a better “leader” for the United States. On top of all his other sins and shortcomings, the current president has tragically failed to meet the challenge of the Covid-19 crisis, which, in turn, has exacerbated our economic woes (with about 50 million of us unemployed). And. it has turned the fight for social justice into an increasingly bloody battleground, featuring the unconstitutional use of unidentified military units against American citizens. As the eminent Yale scholar, Timothy Snyder, has indicated, the not-so-early signs of fascism have reared their ugly heads.
But enough of this. I know that you need no convincing. The question then arises: What kind of leader is needed to take on the repair of our society and the great opportunity that lies ahead. What should we expect In Joe Biden?
To begin, we need great leadership, not a great leader. Our culture, encouraged by both historians and management consultants, has built our expectations of leadership by a charismatic leader to a dangerous degree. With each passing generation, the Executive Branch has grown stronger, and Congress has become virtually impotent; cooperation between houses of Congress and between Congress and the President now seems an almost archaic concept. The current president is a cartoonish and lethal example of the “great leader” theory. Our Founding Fathers would roll over in their graves had they observed it.
In my view, leadership is not a person but an activity. It is the ability to accomplish goals, not unilaterally, but by gathering and aligning resources in service of a mission. Leadership involves more shepherding than orating, more alliance building than bombast. The style of shepherding can vary from time to time, place to place. It requires the right person at the right time. I believe that at this moment, Joe Biden can demonstrate that kind of leadership.
The mission is massive and clear.
- First, defeat Trump.
- Second, wrestle the pandemic to the ground.
- Third, build back the economy.
- Fourth, turn the social justice movement into concrete legislative and cultural action.
Then, we need to:
- Rebuild and democratize our health care system.
- Recover our place in the international orbit.
- Pass the most progressive legislative agenda since 1932.
- Restore the rule of law.
- Help to transform “shareholder capitalism” into a broader economic agenda, including all shareholders, not just stockholders.
- Encourage experimentation, trying new things, succeeding sometimes and failing sometimes, evaluating why and trying again.
This dramatic moment calls for a great shepherd and compromiser—a talented Commoner—with the ability to bring together large, diverse, often conflicting, and frequently aggressive forces in the service of the great mission.
We need leadership capable of and inclined to seize the day, to go with the great political and demographic momentum building among American youth, people of color, women, and other long marginalized and long striving groups. We need leadership not to invent an agenda but to gather, support, and implement the agenda that is already making itself felt.
We need a practical leader, schooled in getting things done, bringing people together, focusing on their strengths, not on his or her own. It won’t impede forward movement if this imperfect kind of leadership errs or misspeaks. It’s the ability to try this and try that—much as FDR did—until solutions emerge.
We want strength in leadership but, to an extent, a strength that emerges as much from vulnerability as from confidence. Biden, for example, has been characterized as a “conciliatory extrovert,” who combines an outgoing and accommodating nature with strong needs for affiliation and approval. He seeks friends and allies everywhere. In his encounters, he exudes good will. And when conflict emerges, his inclination is to smooth things over, sometimes even at the cost of conceded. Imagine putting pride on hold to sustain relationships and continue a project!
This leadership style might not fit the traditional American idea of male strength, the powerful, solitary, testosterone-fueled individual, standing tall against all opposition. That’s a blessing. But it does speak to the temperament needed to bring people together to achieve shared goals.
Surely it’s no coincidence that the cruelest failures during the pandemic can be found among the world’s manly authoritarians, like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and, of course, Donald Trump. And great successes have been achieved by the more reasoned, collaborative, and empathic approaches of women, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern.
Biden’s partnership with Barak Obama may portend effective leadership during these extremely challenging times. As I understand it, Biden served a number of roles for Obama, one of which was to test ideas and even stir up conflict when necessary. He’s not afraid to join a fight. A second was to represent Obama. This happened a great deal in foreign relations. In other words, he has the fortitude to take stands in complex situations, and he can represent others. Third, he stood comfortably behind Obama.
This seems a key for a person shepherding a mission. He doesn’t have to be “the” person all the time. He can be second fiddle when it serves shared goals. When bringing together the many proud and ferocious forces that are roiling our society, this ability to stand behind, to push from behind, to give credit to others—these are critical skills requiring a very different temperament than we normally associate with leaders.
Leadership is not always about moving forward, going with the energy. One of its vital functions is healing. In this terrible moment of illness and death and cultural polarization, we need a great healer. Everything about Biden’s biography suggests that this is one of his strengths. His own, personal tragedies have enhanced his capacity to feel the suffering of others. His empathy is palpable. I can readily imagine his holding weekly fireside chats, reminiscent of FDR.
In order to heal and to align diverse groups, it is essential to share a basic narrative with them. Biden has risen twice from personal tragedies. We, as a nation, are down now and we need to rise up. We need to bring out and bring to bear our best. The emerging American narrative features a rising tide of women and people of color, rising like Phoenix from the ashes. The eagerly anticipated handoff from Joe Biden, the American everyman, to a woman of color speaks beautifully to the exuberant future of social and economic justice that many of us proudly imagine.