I finished Richard Nixon’s Leaders. In this blog post, I’d like to highlight something that Nixon says on page 331. This occurs within the last chapter, in which Nixon discusses the characteristics of great leaders in the arena.
“He must also want the job, and he must be willing to pay the price. There is a persistent myth that if only a person is well enough qualified, the office will—-or should—-somehow seek him. It will not, and it should not. The myth of the ‘reluctant candidate’ was, for much of the intellectual world, a part of Adlai Stevenson’s attraction. But show me a reluctant candidate and I will show you a losing candidate. A reluctant candidate will not give a campaign the intensity of effort it requires, nor will he accept the sacrifices leadership itself requires: the ruthless invasion of privacy, the grueling schedule, the sting of unfair and often vicious criticism, the cruel caricatures. Unless a person is prepared to accept this and still be ready to pursue the job with passion, he is not going to have the steel to stand it once he gets it.”
Here are some thoughts:
1. Nixon says “he,” but one should not take that to mean that Nixon thinks that only men can be good leaders. Nixon talks about women leaders in this book, namely, Golda Meier and Indira Gandhi. And, on pages 340-341, Nixon speculates about whether more women will be in leadership roles in the future. He lauds Clare Booth Luce’s political abilities and says that “she would have turned in a stellar performance” had Dwight Eisenhower chosen her as his Vice-President rather than Nixon. And Nixon forecasts that, before the end of the twentieth century, the United States “will probably elect a woman to the vice presidency and possibly to the presidency.” That didn’t happen, but it still could happen in the twenty-first century. Look at all the women governors in the United States!
2. Nixon makes good points about the problems of the reluctant candidate, and I would say that his points can apply to the reluctant leader, as well: that one has to want an office seriously in order to throw oneself into its responsibilities and to take a lot of bull without giving up. After reading this passage by Nixon, I can sympathize more with Toby Ziegler’s angry reluctance to support Democratic candidate Matt Santos for President in the television series, The West Wing: Josh Lyman had to go to Texas and beg Santos to run, and Toby did not think that spoke well on Santos’ part!
There is something attractive about the reluctant candidate, though: that reluctant candidates are humble and are not power-hungry, that they have small-time roots, that they have talents that they may not recognize but that others can see, etc. In the Bible, there are a lot of reluctant candidates. Gideon does not want to lead Israel against the Midianites, but that gives God a chance to show God’s power. Saul is reluctant to be king. David has his share of political skills and is able to form important friendships, while fighting the enemies of Israel. But the text goes out of its way to present David as someone who was not ambitious: the kingship just fell into his lap. By contrast, it seems to me that those who crave power in the Bible are the ones you wouldn’t want to exercise it: Abimelech agreed to be king, and he was likened to a thornbush (Judges 9).
On the other hand, perhaps some of the reluctant candidates in the Bible were not right for the job—-in that their reluctance was a hindrance to them. Saul was reluctant to be king, and he disobeyed God because he feared the people, and somehow his insignificance in his own eyes kept him from grasping the gravity of his office and performing what God considered to be Saul’s duties (I Samuel 13; 15:17).
I agree with Nixon that one has to want an office in order to be a good leader. At the same time, I don’t think that everyone who craves power deserves it. Moreover, I believe that even a reluctant candidate can surprise us, as long as the reluctant candidate becomes willing to be in the game for the long haul.
3. Nixon in his last chapter seems to argue that a good leader is one who is impressive to people. He has a point, for a leader needs to impress people to get them to follow him. At the same time, Nixon does describe a wide variety of leaders. Some are reserved, but others are outgoing. Some work long hours, while others sleep in or take naps. Some are powerful and charismatic speakers, while others are more cerebral (without getting overly theoretical that it stands in the way of practicality) or are good at forming coalitions. There are arguably a variety of ways to impress people. Charisma is one way, but showing people that one has what it takes to do the job (even if one doesn’t have the flashiest personality in the world) is another way.