Why Shouldn’t We Be President

In June of 2016, I left my job as CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit Leadership, handed the mantle to a much younger woman, and began my retirement.  I was 74.  The INP was on the verge of a major expansion – adding programs in New York and possibly Chicago among other cities –and although I found it all tremendously exciting, I didn’t want to lead that effort.  And I also didn’t see myself as the best person to do so.  .  Friends, family, and colleagues supported my decision as the right move at the right time.

With the debate over age and the presidency now raging, I find myself musing on the question of timing:  Why did I think it best to pass the torch?

The obvious answer was that I had grown old, that I wasn’t up to the task.  It was time for new ideas and new energy.  There’s some truth to the energy matter…less about ideas, since I still have lots of them. It seems to me, though, that it might be even more useful to turn our lens elsewhere: towards the differences between my successor, Yolanda Coentro, and me.  She’s a brilliant manager and leader, far more adept than I at building teams and operational systems, managing to strategy, and speaking to large audiences.  Even if I were 40, she’d be the right, and I the wrong, person to lead the INP at this phase of its development.

At the same time, I believe that, if I chose to, I’d still be entirely competent to begin new organizations, consult on strategic considerations with organizations ranging from startups to national corporations (which I have done in the past), or restart a psychotherapy practice.  In other words, the distinction between Yolanda and me might have more to do with temperament and skill than with age.

I’m getting irritated with people like Seth Moulton, who smugly talk about the need for new blood without saying what youth would add, what they would stand for, or what they can accomplish that old pros like Nancy Pelosi can’t.  Why wouldn’t a wise old head with lots of energy and experience fill the presidential leadership role as well or better than a young Turk?

The Nobel Prize winning scientist, Harold Varmus, quips that he doesn’t think  “anyone is competent to be president of the United States.”  There’s an impossible amount to learn.  Besides, if s/he’s over 70, there’s a 20% chance s/he’ll die in office.  That said, Varmus, who was born in 1939, served as the Director of the National Cancer Institute from 2010 to 2015.  You do the math.  “I’m still pretty good at learning new stuff,” he said.  As a matter of face, he believes that his judgment, writing ability, perspective, and temperament had all seemed to improve in his late 80’s.  So, yes, he figures that he could have responsibly taken on the presidency late in life.

You might say that Varmus is the exception, but that is precisely my point.  People vary so much, not just in their skills and temperament but also in how they age.  Years ago, Howard Gardner, wanting to break our society’s fixation on logical and verbal skills, insisted that there are many forms of intelligence, including musical, rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic.  Daniel Goleman has documented the importance of “emotional intelligence,” and Angela Duckworth, among many others, tell us that “grit” is as important as any other quality in predicting the success or failure of children — and adults.

Research has also provided a more textured idea of our cognitive ability as it evolves through a lifetime.  Raymond Cattell, for instance, juxtaposes two kinds of intelligence—“fluid” and “crystallized.”  “Fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Crystallized intelligence is acquired through experience and education.  Another cognitive psychologist, Richard Nisbett, concludes that:

“…when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in “fluid intelligence,” complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.”

I would add that our nation — perhaps all nations — has a narrow (and erroneous) idea about what kind of mind and temperament are best suited to leadership.  Generally we envision assertive, decisive men, preferably 6’1” or taller, able to stand strong and alone even when buffeted by setbacks and criticism.  That ideal is closer to Ayn Rand’s amoral bully than we’d like to think.  But great leadership comes with the ability to bring together people and resources in the service of objectives.  It is the achievement of shared objectives that we’re after, isn’t it?  And that requires a very different set of skills than the popular model, which imagining charisma to be the end all, envisions.

What if we assess our leaders on their ability to select and depend on others with greater expertise in specific arenas? to bring out the best in individuals and teams — like the Cabinet, for instance, or the Foreign Service?  These skills require considerable social-emotional intelligence as well as some humility. There’s no guarantee that older politicians, who have lived years with life’s complexities, will necessarily demonstrate this style of leadership. But I might bet on them first.

I’m not suggesting that older people are necessarily better at leadership.  Clearly there are virtues in both youth and age — and each person, each candidate needs to be evaluated not as a general phenomenon but as an individual.  We might associate youth with vigor, daring, and originality but, for example, which of the Democratic candidates now seems the most vigorous, creative, and mentally alive?  Whether you like her or not, you’d have to say it’s Elizabeth Warren.

What’s more, we shouldn’t have to guess so much about our politicians’ ability.  What if we figure out some of the basic qualities required of presidential leadership, like social-emotional intelligence, and the ability to both understand and act in large, complex systems, then require candidates to be tested before running for office.  For that matter, why don’t we require annual physical and cognitive exams for those in high office?  That way we might not be saddled with the Woodrow Wilson’s and Ronald Reagan’s of the world, whose mental infirmities were kept secret, their unelected proxies running the show.

I would like to see a much more nuanced discussion about age and presidential fitness and ability.  Before leaping to conclusions, let’s ask what set of abilities and attributes suit the job and, only then, decide who meets our criteria.

 

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Self-Determination

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me to talk about aging with a men’s reading group that he hosts.  I agreed and a few days later, he sent me a gift of That Good Night, a novel by Richard Probert.  It’s a rollicking, hyperbolic, Odessey-like journey that describes the struggles and triumphs of 84 year old Charlie Lambert as he escapes from what he experiences as the prison of an assisted living facility.

Charlie is an archetypal grumpy old man, who feels rejected by his family, forgotten by his friends, and consigned to a life of endless boredom, condescension, and enforced passivity.  He yearns to be free.  He dreams of making his own decisions and pursuing a life of his own choosing, which, after his escape, takes the form of a solo sailing voyage from the Chesapeake to the shores of Maine.

Freedom is no metaphor for Charlie.  As he sails off, his mind and energy return to life.  He relishes even the smallest pleasures. For Charlie, even the uncertainties and pains of freedom are preferable to a life quietude and resignation, and That Good Night serves as a comic paean to self-determination.

Of course, the need for autonomy and a sense of one’s agency accompany us through all stages of life.  In early childhood, during the “terrible twos,” we intone: “No, no, no.”  That’s the time when we, incohately but persistently, begin to draw boundaries between ourselves and our parents.  It’s as if a small child could say “I am more than an extension of my parents.”  The content doesn’t matter but the boundaries do.

In adolescence, we move beyond the world that we see as defined by others.  Wittingly and unwittingly, we explore unknown and often frightening realms.  Part of us yearns for a return to the security of parental rules and ideas, but we can’t, we won’t.  Beginning in early adulthood, our sense of belonging and our sense of service may lead to an apparent retreat into more conventional styles.  We seem to let other people—bosses and spouses, for example—commandeer the autonomy we had won with such pain and perseverance.  What independence and self determination we still nurture goes underground and becomes more a part of our fantasy than our active lives.  That’s part of the mystery of adulthood.  Even as we earn our livings and raise our children, we can feel other, seemingly more authentic, exotic, or rebellious selves peek out at work, in affairs, in mid life crises.  But, for the most part, these remain anomalous, not defining experiences.

Strangely enough, self-determination reappears as a defining experience in old age, even if neglected by institutions that care for us.  With the loss of job- and family-defined lives, we must decide what we will do, who we will be.  We yearn equally for safety and adventure.  Some adventures may seem tame—Elder Hostile travel tours, skin diving, and red convertibles, for instance—but they express a profound desire to reach beyond the limitations that we had imposed on ourselves.

And surprisingly enough, I believe that this desire transcends gender.  While self-determination is far more closely associated with men than women, the need to meet life head on and to set one’s own course, seems as true for one as the other.

What, then, is self-determination?  For me, it’s not so much about running from convention nor reacting against what others do or what they wish for us.  As we reach maturity, self-determination shifts from a negative to a positive valance—not so much being free from constraints as being free to pursue our own ends.

This kind of freedom requires self knowledge.  You can’t set a true course until you know what it is, and you can’t know what it is until you know who you are and what  aims make you feel right with yourself.  Old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it this way:  “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  To do so, you really have to listen to those inner voices.  As older people, we have the time and the elbow room to do that kind of listening. We have listened before.  We know the themes that have animated our lives.  We are potential connoisseurs.

To listen well, you have to be still.  For a moment, at least, you have to let go the need to be productive.  Otis Redding can be our model, “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away.”  Meditation provides another model.  It calms the mind and allows us to observe our feelings with greater clarity and skepticism.  As William Wright writes, “Rather than automatically following their guidance, you critically inspect them and decide which ones to trust.”

At such times, feelings, thoughts, and images float through your mind.  If you refuse to settle on one right away, you eventually find your mind focusing, almost by itself, on some desire and some course of action.  If you wish, that becomes your north star.

Pursuing that star then requires discipline.  Henry David Thoreau tells us that “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…”  This statement joins the two parts of self and determination.  As we know from the pages of Walden Pond, Thoreau quieted his life so that he could determine what mattered most, then followed what he learned as carefully and authentically as he could.

I identify with Thoreau.  Like him, I keep a journal as a way to observe my world and to quiet myself.  I think of my blog posts as ways to sort through and crystallize what I am learning.

It’s not easy to find the core.  As contemporary philosophers have taught us, it may be necessary at first to throw off the rules that we live by before we can learn about our more authentic voices and choices.  In fact, self-determination is a phrase often used for countries, not individuals.  A former colony, for example, throws off the yoke of slavery in order to gain freedom, first.  Only then does self-direction follow.

So, too, with individuals.  We have to look inside at length to determine what has been imposed and what is true for us, alone.  We have to throw off the colonizing process of all the rules we have learned, the habits we have developed in order to be liked, to seem good, smart, strong, or appropriate.

In his famous essay, Emerson talks of “self reliance,” but that phrase misses the mark for me.  It’s not a matter of just depending on ourselves.  I think we do and must depend on others, as well.  It’s a matter of directing ourselves in order to be the person we wish to be, in order to achieve the ends we want to achieve.  In another passage, Emerson says it better:  First he tells us that  “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”  Then he proclaims:  “Dare to live the life you have dreamed for yourself. Go forward and make your dreams come true.”

How, then, can we go forward?  There is an emerging consensus among psychologists and educators that determination is as powerful as what we think of as innate ability.  They call this quality “grit.”  When they look at a child’s potential, they say that the willingness to try and try again, to fall and rise again, to persevere in the face of criticism and doubts, their own and others’—that this quality of character may be a better predictor of future success than IQ and social privilege.

It may seem strange to invoke the quality of grit for aging people but I am convinced that it is essential to our well being.  Those among my friends who tenaciously pursue the activities that matter most to them, whether it be caring for grandchildren, playing music, meditating, continuing their professional work, or launching new and seemingly unrealistic project—these people are most alive.

Self determination, then, begins with contemplation and culminates with the energetic, often dogged pursuit of whatever turns you on.  There is joy and satisfaction in this pursuit.