Oval Office or Starship: What a leader needs

A professional manager may or may not make a good US president. Piloting a superpower through a four-year term is so complex and unpredictable that no one can be fully prepared for the job.

Evan Vucci/AP
Marine one, with President Obama aboard, takes off from the White House lawn.

Who was the best captain of the Starship Enterprise: the swashbuckling James T. Kirk, who relied on charm, instinct, and, frequently, his fists; the cool-headed Jean-Luc Picard, who could outthink half the known universe; the compassionate, collaborative Kathryn Janeway, who enlisted her crew’s teamwork to solve intergalactic puzzles? 

Pardon the Nerd 101 quiz. I’m trying to make a point about management styles: There will never be universal agreement on what type is the most effective. Circumstances always differ. Almost any manager – even bizarre ones like Muammar Qaddafi or Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss – succeeds somewhere for some amount of time. 

Being a great chief executive officer may or may not make you a good president. Governors and generals have been presidents. So have lawyers, gentleman farmers, a teacher, a college president, a movie actor, a tailor, a haberdasher, and a community organizer. Why not a CEO?

No matter what kind of résumé a leader brings to the White House, governing requires firmness, compromise, compassion, cunning, and an ability to sort out the fast-breaking complexities of global and domestic politics, economics, culture, sociology, science, and several dozen other disciplines at lightning speed. It also helps to be a good communicator. And likable. And have a nice family. And a cute dog.

At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, management skills matter, but so does everything else. Nobody takes that job with a portfolio sufficient to cope with all the possibilities that may crop up. Good management is about knowing what you know and what you don’t know and working with your team, your allies, and sometimes your opponents to try to influence events so that they (1) do the least harm and (2) ideally, do the most good for the most people.

Since the pioneering days of Frederick Taylor, management has tried to be a science. The part that Mr. Taylor concentrated on – how workers perform their tasks most efficiently – can be scientifically analyzed and replicated. But management also includes the more holistic approaches advocated by Peter Drucker and a cast of thousands of gurus who tout their advice in the Harvard Business Review and on the racks of airport bookstores. 

Management is art as well as science. The art is to make it seem as though one’s charges are not being managed. There’s nothing so chortle-worthy as a tin-eared boss spouting jargon about Six Sigma, delayering, empowering, reengineering, or rightsizing. There’s nothing so transparent as when el jefe awkwardly pulls a “one-minute manager” or decides to “manage by walking around.” (Let’s see, it says on page 36 ...)

Not that management ideas don’t have value. It’s just that a good manager internalizes the lessons learned from management experts and makes them her or his own. Like everything else in life, good management starts and ends with integrity. Another way to put it is that “the strongest force in the universe is a human being living consistently with his identity.” (That would be management guru Tony Robbins.)

Speaking of the universe, here's a pop quiz on leadership: Which starship captain would be best in an alien encounter? 

For my part, I’d go with this lineup: Janeway to motivate the crew on the long journey through space; Picard to devise an enlightened protocol for first contact; and, of course, Kirk in case the local bad guys want to rumble.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. 

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