Planes barely missing planes. Banks failing. Trains leaving the tracks carrying toxic substances. Various commentaries on how America, in important strategic respects, is falling behind China. I can’t attest to the latter, but we can all attest to the former.
Are these failures the fault of the President? No, but in the chains of authority and responsibility as President Harry Truman noted: “the buck stops here.” Leadership is not easy and leading the United States is a singular, complex and at times almost impossible challenge.
In much of the organizational world the question of what is next is crucial. And beyond plans and budgets and research targets the most important question is who will succeed the person in charge. The best organizations get this right more often than not.
Apple, while Steve Jobs was leading it, was often said to be ill-prepared for his death. This became a recurring critique as Job’s illness was known well before he gave way to it. Tim Cook, one of Job’s senior executives, succeeded him and has done a rather good job.
Politics is harder. There is not an Executive Committee to plan and execute succession. Ambition, power and money intercede. In Maryland, Governor Hogan’s choice as a successor, for example, didn’t get beyond her Party’s primary.
It is an article of faith that leaders who have visions and ambitions want to influence the choice of their successor. President Joe Biden has both and is in a position to influence the choice of the person to succeed him. And as importantly, the timing. 2024? 2028? Or, at a time not of his choosing?
He chose Kamala Harris as his Vice President. He wanted to make a point of expanding opportunity. He limited his search to a woman of color. And if news reporters and commentators had it right he intended to choose from a handful of African-American women who at the time held office. It is unimaginable that a business or non-profit of consequence would have so narrowed the search for such a consequential role. It should be kept in mind that quite a few Vice Presidents end up in the Oval Office. In my lifetime, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, George HW Bush and Joe Biden.
Self-identified Democrats, if you believe polls, are not happy with an 80-year-old President whose constitutional successor is Kamala Harris. Yet it is said by significant pressure groups within the President’s Party that if he runs again he certainly must choose Ms. Harris a second time.
I will leave it to others to critique the Vice President. Perhaps her principal job in providing discreet counsel to the President is going well. Who knows? Her more public roles (taking the leadership on the challenges at the Southern Border, for example) have not gone well. But let me add, this is an interactive medium so if I have overlooked an important success please let the readers of The Spy know.
Overall I am not enamored with two-Party leadership which at the top rank is often filled with people who are less than the office needs. Too often getting to the top is an exercise in retail politics and fundraising; neither especially good preparation for facing the challenges offered up by a very large and complicated country. Looking way back, Harriet Tubman would have been an excellent national leader having proved her legendary skill in organizing the Underground Railroad.
And the Vice President aside, President Barack Obama showed concretely that a person of color can win the White House. And he won with a majority, not a plurality, of the vote. There are literally hundreds of candidates of color that have been elected to the top jobs in their jurisdictions. And they are not all Democrats. Is everything perfect? No, but as a culture we have been willing to make adjustments that would not even be contemplated in other societies.
In a few months the candidate slate will be set, absent an intervening event none of us can predict. I can state unequivocally that my vote is for sale. And here is what I will not buy along with most voters occupying the middle ground of politics. I will not vote for Donald Trump. He might be able to lead his base but he cannot lead the nation. And I will not vote for an 82-year-old President who offers up Kamala Harris as his successor. I want tangible indices of success at the Vice-President level.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al writes on themes from his book, Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.
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