The Kerry style of leadership

Chris Greeley's life was changed by a snap John Kerry decision. A volunteer in Mr. Kerry's 1982 campaign for lieutenant governor, Mr. Greeley met the candidate while passing out fliers at the Wonderland T-stop outside Boston. Kerry hired the sometime bartender on the spot - and Greeley worked for him for 16 years as a driver, then adviser and trusted aide.

For the most part, Greeley witnessed a management style that was "straight up and consistent." But sometimes his boss was a perfectionist to the point of exasperation. "[We used to] literally be writing speeches on the way up the stairs, virtually any formal speech . . . He didn't want anything that wasn't exactly what he wanted," says Greeley.

When it comes to leadership, Kerry has two impulses that sometimes conflict.

He can move fast when he has to.

Combat, after all, is no place for a waffler. But on many matters, particularly those that involve abstract thought, his decision-making process sometimes meanders. He may not make a final choice until he's picked an issue apart and examined its aspects in detail.

The contrast with President Bush is a stark one. Bush, the nation's first MBA chief executive, sets broad strategy and leaves minutiae to others. By all accounts, on most issues he quickly checks off an option and then moves on.

Kerry's style is unfocused and irresolute, say Republicans. Kerry partisans retort that Bush is a rigid ideologue.

John Kerry "bases decisions on intellect, research. It's a much smarter, safer way to make public policies in a complex world," says Paul Pezzella, a longtime Kerry field operative.

Thursday night John Kerry will bask in triumph as he grasps something he has sought his whole life - the Democratic nomination for president of the United States. But if he is to realize his final goal of winning the White House he must grapple with Republican charges that he is lacking when it comes to leadership and management skills.

Longtime friends insist that GOP ads depicting Kerry as a flip-flopping opportunist don't reflect the man they know. From his early years John Kerry was a realist, they say. He didn't run his life via preset opinions. He gathered the facts.

In Vietnam he learned that turning his Swift boat toward the riverbank and motoring toward enemy attack presented a smaller target for incoming fire and in many circumstances was safer than turning and running. The result: an informed aggression.

Firsthand service in Southeast Asia convinced Kerry that the US effort there was misbegotten. He came back a paradox: a decorated protester.

"At a young age he perceived reality, the world as it is," says Thomas Vallely, director of the Vietnam program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and a longtime Kerry friend.

This realism was combined with an education that stressed Socratic discussion. A champion debater at Yale, Kerry later served as a local prosecutor in Massachusetts. After two failed runs for Congress he eventually won a Senate seat - and the Senate styles itself as the debate chamber of the nation, after all.

And even by Senate standards Kerry has been a honed advocate. He's won recognition not so much by legislating as by serving on quasi-prosecutorial investigative panels, such as the Iran-contra commission of the late 1980s.

"Kerry learns by arguing. It gets him in trouble sometimes," says Mr. Vallely.

Kerry's executive experience is brief, limited to service as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, and a brief foray into the private sector as cofounder of a cookie cart at a Boston tourist attraction. In the Senate, his office hasn't been known as bastion of efficiency. At times it has been divided into factions that compete with each other for Kerry's ear.

Similarly, Kerry's campaign was in disarray last winter, with new manager Jim Jordan struggling to limit the lines of communication to the candidate while poll numbers kept slipping. Eventually, Kerry changed managers - an example of his making a tough decision, say friends, albeit after much deliberation.

Then this summer, with the nomination all but clinched, some Kerry advisors urged their man to delay official acceptance of the nod until after the Boston convention. Such a move would have allowed greater leeway in fundraising and spending.

The idea drew immediate fire in the press, but Kerry didn't quickly disown it. Instead, he carefully heard out points of view before rejecting it.

"He can synthesize problems and listen to all points of view," says Mr. Pezzella.

That skill proved important in what is arguable Kerry's finest policy achievement to date: leadership of the POW/MIA panel in the Senate. Kerry proved a patient listener - Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has often noted he himself wasn't nearly as patient - and heard out those legislators who believed Americans had been left behind in Southeast Asia. The panel eventually struck a consensus that helped heal a policy divide dating back to the 1970s.

Kerry's "ability to make good decisions is shown by some of the policies he's pursued in the past," said campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill at a Monitor breakfast on Monday.

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