Still Searching for Leaders in America

Ken Connor

6/3/2007 12:00:52 AM - Ken Connor

Many Americans—and especially those who see themselves as conservative—identify "rugged individualism" as a quintessential American characteristic. There is deep-seated admiration for those who make their own way in life, who set out to forge their individual path to success. However, the truth is that a nation cannot be truly successful if everyone is heading off in their own direction without regard to anyone else. At a certain point Americans need to come together as one nation and unite to address the many serious problems facing the country. After all, we live in community with one another, not in isolation. To succeed in the War on Terror, to solve the Social Security crisis, to finally address our failed immigration policies, Americans are going to have to work together f or the common good. Strong leadership will be required to create the unity and the consensus necessary to develop solutions to difficult problems.

So far there seems to be considerable doubt in the minds of the American people as to who among the current crop of presidential candidates has the requisite leadership abilities to solve our country's problems. After having had many months to think it over, many members of both parties seem especially excited about candidates who are not even in the race: Fred Thompson and Al Gore. Everyone knows that a strong leader with vision will be required to bring the nation together and start leading it in the right direction. While one would not want to fall prey to messianic delusions—imagining that there is a man or woman who could effortlessly unite everyone and lead us into a utopian future—it is nevertheless true that a strong leader in the right place and at the right time can have an historic impact.

When considering the slate of presidential candidates, three qualities are especially important. The first is principled leadership. A strong leader needs to identify the principles that will inform their decision making and stand by those principles even when it is politically inexpedient. In the last election the Republican Party claimed to be the party of family values, moral principle and fiscal conservatism; yet when political expediency or personal ambition got in the way of those principles, the principles went out the window. Voters saw dishonesty and corruption and scandal in the party, and voted accordingly. They recognized hypocrisy when they saw it, and they didnt like it. The reality of politics may require strategic political compromises, but elected official should not compromise their principles. Candidates should be upfront and honest ab out the principles that animate them, and voters should assess whether the candidates have a track record of demonstrated fidelity to those principles.

Second, America needs a leader who can cast a vision and bring people together in pursuit of that vision. Some presidential candidates seem to have a policy position on every possible issue, but no overall vision for where America should be headed. Some candidates are veritable founts of facts and figures; they revel in data and statistics. But Americans should not mistake policy wonks for leaders. A leader needs to be able to see the big picture, understand the fundamental problems, and inspire people with a solution. Vision—the next President needs to have it.

Third, a good leader must be authentic. Too many candidates today think leadership is finding a parade and getting out in front of it. For these candidates, polling prevails over principle. Undoubtedly, that's why more and more candidates are being charged with "flip-flopping" on the issues. "Flip-flopping" creates the impression that a candidate is not leading from principle, but from polling data. It is, of course, not wrong for a politician, over the course of his or her lifetime, to change their position on any number of issues. Anybody who has not changed their mind on anything over an extended period of time probably isn't thinking very seriously about their beliefs. However, voters realize that many candidates for president change their positions not because they have grown to understand new things, but because they have seen the poll numbers and believe that the numbers tell them what must be done to win. Such behavior is evidence that a candidate is insufficiently committed to principle, and lacks a well defined vision. In 2008, we cannot afford a president who is inauthentic.

Many of the issues we are facing today stem from a lack of principled, visionary and authentic leadership in the past. The gigantic battle over immigration reform is but one example of the problems that arise from the lack of such leadership. For decades politicians have been talking about how our immigration system is broken, but no one was willing to grasp the nettle and seriously deal with the problem. No one leader articulated the problem, marshaled the arguments and forged the consensus necessary to deal with this difficult issue in a comprehensive way. Benign neglect and band aids were the treatment applied to the ever growing cancer that we now call "illegal immigration". Over the years the cancer grew, spawning many related problems along the way. Now as our current leaders seek to address the problem, they are learning that in politics, no less so than in medicine, whe n it comes to dealing with cancer, "smaller is better than bigger" and "sooner is better than later". The great animosity and division that is now caused by this crisis likely could have been avoided if twenty or thirty years ago a strong and principled leader had been able to cast a vision for a coherent immigration policy in America and crafted a solution that Americans could unite behind. Instead, for decades leaders passed the buck, and now there seems to be no good answer to the problem.

Numerous other problems are smoldering in our country and threaten to erupt like a volcano in the future. How long will we ignore the looming need for social security reform, the tragedy of abuse and neglect of our elders in long-term care facilities, the breakdown of marriage and the family, and the spiraling of our national debt? The list could go on and on. Will we simply whistle past the graveyard pretending that these major problems will not soon mushroom into a national crisis? How bad do things have to get before real leaders will rise and address these issues?

This presidential election, America is looking for a leader who will stand on principle, who has a vision, and who is willing to provide authentic leadership. We cannot afford to fall into a pattern of waiting until a crisis has spun out of control before we are willing to address it. The price is too high and the consequences are too great. Strong leaders are needed now to bring our nation together and to start tackling tomorrow's problems today.

As we look at the slate of presidential candidates, we must ask ourselves who stands out as the most authentic, principled and visionary leader. It is that candidate that deserves our vote.