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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A Call for a More Dignified and Restrained Presidential Politics

I imagine that most of you are as offended by the Trump campaign as I am.  It is hyped and garish, nasty and brutish, and it is embarrassing to anyone who yearns for a measure of dignity in presidential politics.  The demands of the 24 hour news cycle have created a structured narcissism.  Even if Trump wasn’t so narcissistic to begin with, the demands of the news cycle might impose it upon him. The need to talk constantly about yourself, to keep your face in front of a camera, the virtual requests to attack your opponent—what we have brought upon ourselves is a Hollywood parody of democratic politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Barack Obama—and his family—have set a high standard for dignified behavior in the presidency.  They have exercised an ironic restraint, while the President shies away from attacking others and even seems to resist the temptation to return insults in kind.  I yearn for more restrained, reasonable, and respectful presidential politics.  Whether you agree with President Obama’s policy or not is not relevant to the point I’m making.  I simply want to shine a focus on the dignified way he conducts the business of his office.

I know that because President Obama is a sitting president, enacting policies that some dispute, it might be hard to separate the substance of his governing from his conduct.  So let me present a model that even the most patriotic of Americans will have trouble dismissing.  What follows is a brief sketch of our first President, George Washington.  True, he didn’t live in the world of Fox, CNN, and MSNBC, but he did live in a very small political community, where rumors spread easily and where even our great founding fathers, Jefferson in particular, spread false and damning rumors.  Believe me, it wasn’t as easy as it looked for Washington to take the high ground.

Washington’s character. Over the years, I have read many books about Washington and his times.  Among them are David McCullough’s 1776, Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington, and Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life.  But for now I’m going to lean most heavily on the brilliant portraits of Gordon Wood.  As you read this portrait, keep in mind for comparison the Republican candidate.

Woods tells us that Washington didn’t seem to have much to say.  He was a quiet man.  Unlike Jefferson, Madison, and Adams, he was not an intellectual.  There was nothing abstract about him.  Instead, he was “a man of affairs,” a successful businessman.

Most of all, Washington was a man of great moral character, who put great stock in controlling his passions and conducted himself calmly during the most turbulent of times, as both a wartime general and as our founding President.  Here’s how Woods summarizes it:  Washington, “(a)n enlightened, civilized man, was disinterested and impartial, not swayed by self-interest and self-profit. He was cosmopolitan; he stood above all local and parochial considerations and was willing to sacrifice his personal desires for the greater good of his community or his country. He was a man of reason who resisted the passions most likely to afflict great men, that is, ambition and avarice. Such a liberal, enlightened gentleman avoided enthusiasms and fanaticisms of all sorts…Tolerance and liberality were his watchwords. Politeness and compassion toward his fellow man were his manners.”  In summary, Washington “was obsessed that he not seem base, mean, avaricious, or unduly ambitious.”

Actions that exemplify character. There’s an irony in Washington’s life: His two great acts were resignations, each representing a pillar of our democratic government.  At the end of the Revolutionary War, he resigned as Commander-in-Chief of the American forces.  This was unprecedented.  Throughout human history, the commanders of victorious armies all sought political and material rewards for their achievements.  In resigning, Washington made a symbolic statement about the nature of democracy – how it is different than autocracy.  Leadership must pass from one person to another; and leaders must not cling to power.  Power must reside in the citizenry. 

If Washington was highly respected beforehand, he was revered after his resignation.  The new democratic citizens appreciated how he stood by his word.  He meant to leave his career in order to cement the democratic ideal of peaceful leadership succession.  He was later persuaded that his prestige was essential to the construction of the new republic, and he returned to public life for the Constitutional Convention, where he was immediately elected President.  He accepted the reality that the ratification of the Constitution depended, in good measure, on his support.  As James Monroe wrote to Jefferson, “Be assured, his influence carried this government.”  But Washington lent more than his prestige; he worked extremely hard for ratification.  In other words, he was all in.

Many contemporaries believed that “Washington was the only part of the new government that captured the minds of the people.”  He believed that, too.  He knew that during that tumultuous time, when his country was still fragile, a steady and trusted hand at the helm was of critical importance.  He was self-consciously setting an example for future generations or what he called “the millions of unborn.”  By using his immense cache, he built a strong and somewhat independent executive branch, an idea at odds with the French-leaning Jeffersonians, but one that would forever shape the American Presidency.

Then he did it again.  After two terms, Washington left office.  More than any other presidential act, this resignation established the precedent for a peaceful transition of power, possibly the single most important quality of democratic governments.  Symbolically, it ushered in the rule of ordinary people and ushered out the rule of kings and queens, held in place by divine right.  Washington’s restraint – his refusal to profit by his leadership and popularity, his insistence that he was a man like other men—this was his greatest legacy.  In addition, “he established the standard by which all subsequent Presidents might be ultimately measured—not by the size of their electoral victories, not by their legislative programs, and not by the number of their vetoes, but by their moral character.”

Hillary Clinton has not always maintained Washington’s moral standards in her public life, though it appears that at least she aspires to those standards.  But her conduct during the 2016 campaign, in the face of many disgusting, provocative, misogynistic, and even dangerous attacks, Clinton has remained calm.  She has been strategic in her responses but never has she stooped to a the kind of childish tit for tat exchange that her rival has tried to generate.  Indeed, amidst all the patriotic slogans and iconography surrounding the Trump campaign, Donald Trump is an almost perfect anti-(George) Washington: immodest, greedy, ambitious, untruthful, and mean-spirited.  We, the citizenry, need to hew more closely to Washington’s model in selecting our candidates.