What Skills Does a President Need?
The top ten skills a president needs to be successful
The skills on this short list are important for success in any field, but a national leader needs to demonstrate these skills at a higher level of excellence.
A national leader must have a strong vision of where the country is going, and a plan to bring it there. Like Moses in the wilderness, a leader must always keep the goal of the journey in mind, and keep reminding people that it exists.
During the crisis of World War II, Prime Minister Winston Churchill laid out in plain language exactly what England was going to do.
"We shall fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender"
A national leader must have powerful charisma, to gain the support of the country and to inspire each citizen to contribute to its success.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression, his evident confidence and conviction persuaded the people that the economy might recover.
"The only thing we have to fear…"
Charisma on the airwaves
Which American president sounds most inspiring on the radio?
A president must persevere. Setbacks can only be temporary. He (or she!) must address them and press forward.
Future President Richard Nixon--not wealthy, not popular, not attractive--persisted his way through law school, earning the nickname "Iron Butt" for out-studying his classmates. As a politician, he outlasted scandals and defeats before finally being elected president. In office he was unrelenting in investigating his enemies, which led to Watergate and his impeachment.
Nixon would never give up and go quietly
A national leader must be an effective global communicator of our vision, of the actions we will take, and of how other countries can engage with us.
People called President Ronald Reagan "The Great Communicator." He could certainly deliver a speech.
Effective use of four short words
A national leader must have a strong mind and incredible stamina to synthesize, process, and understand the vast amount of information coming in daily.
(Fun fact: Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has a Ph. D. in physical chemistry.)
Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton could always think on their feet, ready to say something about any complex issue put to them. But George W. Bush would often pop out of gear, mentally, in public.
Some lapses by George W. Bush
A leader of a huge enterprise must select a few tasks to execute at an exceedingly high level. This requires a focus on the most important problems.
Nixon's highest-priority project was rapprochement with China. His visit to China was a surprising breakthrough. His foreign policy might have brought about even closer relations between the US and the "Communist Bloc," but his term was truncated by Watergate.
Nixon visits China
A leader must be willing to make tough decisions, decisions that not everyone will like. He or she must put the total good of the people above the good of donors and a vocal minority. He or she must realize there are good things that cannot be done, given priorities and resources.
Perhaps the American Presidents who made the toughest decisions were the ones who got us out of the Asian wars--Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. There was always some disagreement with the decisions that began these optional wars, and there are still plenty of recriminations about the decisions that got us out of them.
In this masterful political ad, Nixon's team promises to end the Vietnam War.
Nixon promises to end the Vietnam War
IX. Ability to listen
Before making the ultimate decision, a leader must first truly listen to the advisors, the people, and the critics.
Bill Clinton claimed to be a good listener, and suffered a lot of teasing for that.
Bill Clinton: "I feel your pain"
A leader must love his or her people and country genuinely.
In this 9/11 video, President George W. Bush embraces a firefighter and expresses gratitude on behalf of the country.
George W. Bush impromptu speech at site of 9/11/2001 disaster
A footnote: Are skills the most important thing?
Five years ago, in an earlier edition of this Hub, 59% of people polled said current President Barack Obama has these ten skills. Yet many say Obama hasn't accomplished his goals, despite these skills.
It's very American to connect "skills" with "success." Here are two reasons to think they might not be the same thing when it comes to presidents.
1. Skills…for what?
By now it's become an American cliché--the life skills a president needs to get elected are evidently not those he needs to govern.
In this classic 1972 movie, an attractive candidate gains the overwhelming support of the people without having any idea what he means to do with it.
Robert Redford as the newly elected senator in "The Candidate"
2. Do skills plus goals equal success? Maybe not.
In the speech below, in April 2013, former President Jimmy Carter says the US is achieving the opposite of its clearly stated and shared goals: it is promoting war instead of peace, and violating human rights instead of protecting them.
Carter acknowledges Obama's competence, and confirms that Obama's administration shares these goals. Then why can't the Obama administration in practice work for peace and human rights? Something is broken.