Sizing Up Two Candidates as CEOs
Consultants see both strengths and weaknesses in the Bush and Clinton management styles
WASHINGTON — WOULD you rather hire George Bush or Bill Clinton to run your company?
The Monitor asked this question of several leading consultants and authors on corporate leadership and management.
It is not the same question, necessarily, as which of those two candidates is better suited to preside over the United States government. But it offers some insight into the executive styles of the two top contenders. [Candidate Ross Perot is assessed as a chief executive officer (CEO) in the article at left.]
Warren Bennis, management consultant, professor of business at the University of Southern California, and author most recently of "On Becoming a Leader"
Dr. Bennis would choose Bill Clinton to run his company "hands down."
One of the key questions for evaluating executives, he says, is the quality of the people with whom they surround themselves. Bennis looks at Vice President Dan Quayle, Bush's first major personnel choice, and doubts Bush's judgment.
"There are three things that all people want from their leaders," Bennis says, "whether it's a CEO, president, or basketball coach: direction, trust, and hope."
His impression is that Mr. Bush is weak in all three areas, while Mr. Clinton has some strengths.
Direction: Bush is "all radar and no gyroscope," Bennis says, meaning that he conveys little sense of direction.
Clinton has a "pudgy finger," he says, meaning that the direction he conveys is scattered and diffuse and that it is not always clear what he stands for.
"But at least [Clinton] has respect for the idea of vision."
Trust: Both candidates are very weak on the trust issue, Bennis says. In Bush's case, it is because of his broken no-new-taxes pledge; in Clinton's, it is because of his evolving account of his Vietnam-era encounters with the draft and charges of marital infidelity.
Hope: Bennis interviewed 150 top leaders for a recent study and found one attribute they all shared. They all were "purveyors of hope."
In politics, Ronald Reagan's great strength was what Bennis calls "an almost unwarranted optimism."
"Clinton has some of that," he says. But Bush often sounds instead as though he is "whining, complaining, and blaming."
Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," chairman of the Covey Leadership Center, and leadership consultant
Dr. Covey would probably hire George Bush, he says, "because I have more faith in his character."
He adds that he believes both candidates would be very strong leaders.
But "character is more foundational and important than competence," he says, and "as a person, I just feel more comfortable that George Bush is a man of integrity."
He cites both the solid judgment Bush has accrued through years of service and how he hewed to his course during the Gulf war. Bush's handling of the war through a cacophony of differing opinions was "an amazing, principle-centered thing. It showed a tremendous strength inside him."
Covey is quick to add that he does not hold Clinton to a perfect standard or cast doubt on his character. He also acknowledges that Bush has his flaws. Covey would prefer a stronger articulation of vision from the president, he says.
But much of the current dissatisfaction with Bush, he says, is based on false public expectations of what a leader can do. "I think our country is into collective scapegoating and into a rescue fantasy that will not come to pass," Covey says.
Change and progress come when people look to themselves rather than to white knights, in Covey's view. He says his views tend to be conservative Republican in character. But the rhetoric of this campaign, he worries, may lead to further disappointment and lack of faith in government.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, management consultant, professor at Harvard Business School, and author of the new book "Challenge of Organizational Change"
Dr. Kanter would hire Clinton "without a doubt."
"Bush reminds me of a weak CEO," she says. She sees him in the mold of the automobile company chief executives of the 1950s and 1960s that prospered while having few big strategic decisions to make.
Kanter supported Michael Dukakis in the 1988 race, so her sympathies tend to be Democratic, but she often listens to CEOs who are ideologically Republican complain about Bush's inability to set a direction or follow through, she says.
"You need somebody who's committed to a course of action and to acting," Kanter says.
In tough times, a leader needs to inspire hope while making tough realities clear, she says, while scoring Bush low on both counts. The most effective style of leadership today, she says, is one that fosters shared values and a vision of the future that gives other people the confidence to take action at the grass-roots level.
An advantage she gives Clinton is his capacity to listen to others with a genuine enthusiasm for ideas.
"His business supporters say it's less important that he agree with them than that he listens and absorbs," Kanter says.
"The most striking thing companies face today is much more uncertainty about what to do, what strategy to pursue. They need the ability to change course," she says.
This, in turn, pivots on the ability to listen to employees and to customers.
As a governor, Clinton is like a corporate division president facing elevation to chief executive. He has the benefit of experience closer to the front lines.
On the other hand, says Kanter, Bush is like an executive who has spent his career on the corporate headquarters staff.