7 Habits of Failing Pols

Forbes magazine recently ran The Seven Habits of Spectacularly Unsuccessful Executives (Jan 2, 2012, by Eric Jackson).  The article reviewed a study by Sydney Finkelstein of Dartmouth College in which he identified common traits of major companies that became complete failures.  Professor Finkelstein found common habits among the senior executives.

Running up to the 2012 Presidential election there will invariably be attempts to compare running the government to running a company.  This bad habit is most pronounced among Republicans, but let’s set not dwell on whether or not it is a fair comparison.  Instead, for fun, let’s apply the seven traits to politicians.  Below are the habits identified by Finkelstein, a key warning sign offered by Jackson, and my comments.

#1 – They see themselves and their companies as dominating the environment.  Warning sign: A lack of respect.

Politicans are not a humble sort.  Any tendency toward humility they may have is shoved aside to project confidence to their supporters.  Granting them unusual latitude in egotism I still find Barack Obama to be the most self-important politician of recent memory, though Newt Gingrich may be a close second.  The hubris of a man who wrote two biographies before really doing much of anything was compounded by a team that used to election to the Presidency as a opportunity to talk about permanent Democrat majorities, and a new direction for the entire country.

In 2009 while discussing the stimulus package with Congressional leaders President Obama brushed aside any notion of debate with with two words.  “I won,” he reminded Republicans.  That is a remarkably crass display of egotism.

#2 – They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundry between their personal interests and their corporations interests.  Warning sign: A question of character.

So rare are powerful men that put interests of party and state ahead of themselves that history celebrates each one.  George Washington, Cato the Younger, and few others are the exemplars.

This particular leadership flaw most markedly illustrated by former New York Governor George Pataki.  Pataki was the Republican party, and what was good for Pataki was good for the Republican party – or at least those were the marching orders.  As Governor he was the titular head of the state Republican party, and at the end of his twelve years there were fewer Republican voters, fewer Republican office holders, and virtually no remaining effort to articulate party principles, for there were none.   We can debate whether or not he was a good governor, but there is no question that he was a poor party leader.

A state leader was able to devastate his party.  At present, I think that the national parties remain to big for any one man to irreparably harm.

 #3 They think they have all the answers.  Warning sign: A leader without followers. 

Politicians should be very wary of this one.   A leader must not merely permit dissent, but encourage it.  To make sound decisions a leader must hear different points of view.  In the early days of the Obama presidency, much attention was given to his cabinet as being, in the Doris Kearns Goodwin parlance, a team of rivals, akin to Lincoln’s contentious cabinet.   As uniformity has been enforced we hear nothing about competing views at the White House.

Unfortunately this is not merely a habit of leaders.  Supporters quickly learn that favor and access can be gained by towing the line.  I think for Democrats this is particularly dangerous if only because I subscribe to the Taranto principle.

James Taranto, colomnist at the Wall Street Journal asserts that asserts that liberal media bias leads to less thorough vetting of liberal politicians, which can be a disadvantage in general elections.   How far does this go?   Republicans are used to being challenged on the Sunday morning shows and in the New York Times in a way that Democrats can not imagine.  Certainly this hardens their arguments, but consider this.  During the gauntlet of Republican debates we learned more about the nine candidates for the Republican nomination that we know about the sitting President.  Those nine were forced to articulate positions on matters that the President has not answered, and an incurious media permits the discrepancy.

#4 They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them.  Warning sign: Executive departures.

This trait is very close to the third trait.  What’s more, high level departures are common among office holders because all staff understand that a political chief executive has a finite term.   I’ll let this trait slide.

#5 They are consummate spokespersons, obessed with the company image.   Warning sign: blatant attention-seeking.

Ha!  This is how one gets to be a high level office holder.  Republican or Democrat, just about all politicians are guilty of this.   But it does ask us to contemplate an alternative.  Can a person or party run, and succeed on a message, not a personality?

There was too little daylight between Obama and “hope,” so I do not think that a good example.  Perhaps Ron Paul is attempting this.  Dr. Paul is a man of little charisma, but a very specific set of principles.  His brand of libertarianism does seem to pull adherents from both the Left and Right, but the test for the movement will come after Paul has retired.   Certainly the likes of Ross Perot or Ralph Nader were unable to foment a movement that outlived their candidacies.

#6 They Underestimate Obstacles.  Warning sign: Excessive hype.

The habit seems more apt for George W. Bush, but it is hard to see the warning sign as meant for anyone but Obama.  The hype surrounding the term of Obama was breathtaking, but let’s focus on the habit part.

My first impulse is to give officeholders a pass on underestimating obstacles.  To a degree this falls under the heading of projecting confidence.  But it seems that something more happened under W. Bush.  The lessons for other leaders are hard to miss.

Surely one must ignore the naysayers – there would not have been a successful surge without Bush’s willingness to press ahead – but it is in everyone’s interest to remain acutely aware of all that can go wrong.  There may never have been a need for a surge.

#7 They stubborngly rely on what worked for them in the past.  Warning sign: Constantly referring to what worked in the past.

I understand the desire to capture the mantle of Reagan, but Republican candidates really do need to move on.  To my dismay, here is one that Obama got right.

Obamacare was and is unpopular.  I think the method of passage was deploreable, and I certainly loath the fiat accompli, but Obama got Obamacare enacted and thus succeeded where every Democrat before him failed.


Running a government is not the same as running a business.  Yet, some voters encourage the analogy, and some politicians encourage those voters.  The lessons of one do not necessarily relate to the other, but this should not dissuade anyone from looking for ways to run the government a little better.

Best practices can be culled from business, or sports, or families or anywhere.  To be successful, political leaders need to be rare creatures.  They have exaggerated characteristics.  Far too few seem to exaggerate the good characteristics.


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