Sarah Palin’s new book and accompanying book tour through several early primary states has stirred speculation that she’s launching an ill-disguised presidential bid. One might have cause to wonder just what motivates someone to consider him – or her – worthy of such a breathtaking responsibility. Does such a person hear the clarion call of historical inevitability? Is s/he driven by an overwhelming need to right ideological wrongs? Does the siren song of ultimate power whisper in a shell-like ear?
Certainly it would occur to me that one of the first questions a potential candidate — for president or town council — might ask is: Am I smart enough? Brains aren’t everything, that’s for damned sure. We all know folks who might do well in school, score high on tests and be able to regurgitate facts with startling accuracy, but who lack common sense, creativity and/or character. Perhaps the more relevant question is: in these days fraught with economic and political peril, what qualities do we need in our leaders?
Certainly worthy leaders — at least in my mind — have certain characteristics in common. A venerable leader is someone who holds a firm set of principles that have been tested by experience. S/he has achieved that delicate balance between offering a fully realized vision and allowing room for doubt, for self-examination, for the potential of being wrong. A praiseworthy leader possess the integrity to put the common good above self-interest and the courage to admit and correct errors when they inevitably occur. And a strong leader is one who can bend to compromise without breaking.
Effective leaders (effective in the good sense, not in the Adolph Hitler sense) seem to have a magic elixir running through their veins. With some notable exceptions they exude a magnetic attraction of charisma, eloquence and force of character. Good leaders often seem larger than life, a human model chiseled with a finer blade, presenting an ideal to which us ordinary fellas can aspire. Of course some who attain positions of power are vehicles for the projections of those who need to see their own beliefs, assumptions and suppositions reflected in another regardless of how true that reflection might be.
But what does any of that have to do with smarts? Does a good leader have to be a brainiac? I contend: no… but then yes.
As Howard Gardner and others have enlightened us, intelligence is a multi-dimensional thing. One can be mathematically and musically acute and yet lack the ability to make small talk at a party, dance the cha-cha, or grasp the profundity of a sunset. As noted earlier, admirable leadership is a salad, not a steak. It’s a mixture of qualities and intentions and innate talents. But one thing a leader cannot, and should not, be is tainted with hubris.
To presume that one can assume office, especially high office, without a deep and broad understanding of the context of that office — its history, its heroes, the principles and laws that govern its operation — is the worst kind of arrogance. Taking the time, putting in — and valuing — the effort to learn about the milieu in which one intends to function seems to me to be the first obligation of a candidate. Those who don’t are doomed to mediocrity, and shallow, middling leadership is all they have to offer. Second-rate is what we’ll get. And second-rate is not just ineffective — it’s dangerous.
One doesn’t have to be a psychic to predict that Sarah Palin is gearing up for 2012. She certainly can wow her followers, look spiffy in waders, and slaughter with apparent glee just about any animal that gets in her crosshairs. But does she respect the work required to rise to the level of real leadership? Is she humbled before the immensity, and the immense importance, of the challenge?
Political and historical literacy matter since they signal humility and the understanding that the mechanisms and impact of governance are hugely complex and demanding. The American Civic Literacy website offers this quiz. Take it — see where you stand. Then check out the comparison of the scores of “ordinary” people with the scores of elected officials. Then be afraid, be very afraid.