Field of Science

Mavericks are not good leaders

I generally avoid being political, but something occurred to me and it struck me as important enough to share.

John McCain touts his status as a maverick as one of his primary qualifications for being president. Well, it occurred to me that I know a great deal about being a maverick because I have had a long career as a maverick among our faculty.

I’m very good at seeing issues from other perspectives and I often have a different view than the majority of my colleagues or the administrative main stream. At times I can broker cooperation by finding common ground, but that’s the best thing a maverick can do, other than being more or less independent of big cliques. Often I can get to the heart of an argument or issue because I don’t care all that much one way or the other, and in this instance provide a means of moving forward. So I’m an independent thinker, and that’s good, but mavericks are often a loose cannon on the deck; you are never sure which way they will shoot as the ship rolls to and fro.

Here’s something else I know about myself. I’m not a good leader; I lack those intangible qualities that make for leadership. And this is John McCain’s problem. He isn’t a good leader either. Nothing in his long and storied career suggests he is a leader. In fact being a maverick almost assures that you are not a leader because leaders behave in a very different way. Consider McCain’s military experience as a fighter pilot. These guys aren’t leaders, they’re mavericks (with apologies to the Senator for the necessarily comparing him to a 2nd rate actor). He picked Sarah Palin because she too has some credentials as a maverick, but nothing in her record of administrative experience suggests she has the qualities of a natural born leader either.

And leadership is something that no one seems to talk about amidst all the bickering and sniping that substitutes for political discourse these days. The McCain-Palin ticket offers nothing in terms of leadership. Neither candidate has the bearing, the attitude, the stature, the it’s-hard-to-describe-what-it-is but you-know-it-when-you-see-it quality. They feign the fictional macho leadership as it is so often parodied on TV and in movies. Both McCain and Palin have been emphasizing their tough decisiveness as if that were the end all and be all of leadership.

A real leader surrounds themselves with competent people, then demands and gets the best performance from everyone. For that you need three qualities: restraint, generosity, and empathy, which are a lot less macho stuff. Both McCain and Palin clearly lack restraint. They portray themselves as people of action, yet good leaders have the restraint to avoid snap decisions or undue action until the true nature of the situation is clear. This also takes an intellectual approach as opposed to the unthinking certainty of ideological thought that has been the hallmark of the current occupant. And of course a true leader does not work to obfuscate the situation for political ends either. To work with other people you have to have empathy for their position, to deeply understand their position, and so far this ticket has not gotten beyond campaign rhetoric. None of this suggests any empathy or understanding for others, and indeed, both seem quite proud of intractable, absolutist positions. Good leaders must be generous in their using their time, their treatment, and their recognition of others to accomplish their goals. Mavericks like doing things on their own, and sometimes have a hard time recognizing, listening to, and making use of the contributions of others.

In fact if McCain were a natural born leader, it would not have taken him so many years to have acquired his party’s nomination. His natural leadership talents would have been recognized long ago. So whether you agree with his positions on issues or not is almost a moot point, McCain will make a lousy leader of this country to say nothing of the free world. He’ll be a poor leader for different reasons than why the current occupant is a poor leader, but that doesn’t matter. This is why foreign leaders who certainly know McCain have not endorsed his candidacy or expressed any support; they recognize that he lacks the qualities of leadership.

Our country has been floundering for some time now on basic issues of freedom, democracy, and good citizenship, and what we as a country should stand for, and it’s because the current occupant is such a poor leader. He simply lacks the smarts and ability to communicate to be a leader. In fact his lack of leadership ability, and his departure from his own best instincts, turned him into a follower of Darth Cheney rather than a leader of the free world. And no one is better off because of it. We need leadership and it isn't going to be found on this ticket.

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