Qualities that shape Presidential Performance

Choosing the right political leader is of critical importance because it has an impact on the development and prosperity of a country, writes JANET SEKGARAMETSO-SENOSI

More often than not, the electorate vote the wrong candidate or party into office, leaving them reeling in massive regret and having to sit out a political term of office of a leader they deem a caricature. It is therefore of paramount importance to consider what you desire from a political leader before casting your vote because leadership involves multiple skills and talents.
An American revolutionary has proclaimed that an effective leader is someone who knows “when to lead, when to follow and when to get out of the way”. In this assessment, effective leaders do much more than give orders. They create a shared vision for the future and viable strategic plans for the present. They should negotiate ways to achieve what is needed while also listening to what is wanted. They integrate individuals and groups into processes of making decisions and enacting policies by developing support for their plans.
Choosing the right political leader is a dire need because it has an impact on the development and prosperity of a country. Political leaders are the primary holders, controllers and distributors of power and resources in a particular country. In Africa we have varying types of political leadership that have hindered development, including having to operate in an environment constrained by colonial legacies and instability. It is often characterised by neo-patrimonial presidentialism, elitism and use of state resources and centralisation of power. We continue to have cases of ‘stayism’ whereby leaders employ extra-constitutional and coercive means to retain power. Democratisation has created political parties that focus on loyalty rather than issues of service, constrained civil society and the media, privatised violence and rampant corruption.
In order to move any country forward in prosperity, there is a need for the attainment of quality leaders. The people should have an advanced understanding of their leaders’ actions and in-depth appreciation of qualities they should have to hold the highest office in the land. Scholars posit that there are several qualities that one can use to ascertain presidential performance when observing them in office, such as effectiveness as a public communicator, organisational capacity, political skill, policy vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence. I will draw examples from non-sitting presidents.
The masses are in continuous need to hear what their president has to say. There is a constant need for the president to talk to the public over varying key issues of concern or direction. It is the naval connection between leader and led. In this view, a president has to be an effective public communicator and should be eloquent with a good command of the language they use to connect with the public.
One of the greats said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. But if you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” In essence, they should be able to clearly articulate policies and be astute when the need arises. The president’s voice of empathy when there is a national crisis should be prevalent. It keeps the leader abreast of his people with regard to common issues of concern. Communication should be purposeful both for the leader and the nation.
In presidential history around the world, some of the best orators include Barack Obama, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. They are all known for their composed, meaningful and impactful speeches. However, as much as communication is a key factor in any presidency, it does not necessarily mean it is the only way a president can remain in the good poise of the public.
The president’s capacity as an organiser includes the “ability to forge a team and get the most out of it, minimising the tendency of subordinates to tell their boss what they sense he wants to hear”. In a sense, the president should pick a highly talented and experienced team that will drive the presidential agenda. The team or cabinet should be able to say the unpopular and the president should deem it as constructive feedback and not disloyalty. Of key importance, a president’s success as a team builder can be measured by the way he is remembered by his administration.
At times presidents can be found to have been pitting their team members against each other to create disharmony. Others would scrutinise proposals of his advisors and only see flaws and pitfalls. Presidents with highly-developed organisational capacity avail themselves of advice and information from people that work for them, creating a rapport even in the face of disagreement.
The centrality of the president’s performance is his political skill. Neustadts prescribes political skill as “the president’s use of the powers of his office assertively, build and maintain public support and establish a reputation among fellow policymakers as a skilled, determined political operator”. Political skill is the art of persuasion, where the president is able to not only be an orator but communicate things that have content. One of the deciding factors in noting political skill in a president is when they can muster support from policymakers and lawmakers even from opposition by exhibiting will and skill to show commonality. Of his many leadership qualities, Nelson Mandela’s political skill was out most remarkable. “He would disarm his enemies with his smile, high level of forgiveness, positive thinking, the ability to see the big picture, focus on goals and missions beyond himself”. Presidents with political skill have strong public support, which makes it difficult for any opposition. A president that lacks political skill fails to build bridges and makes avoidable errors, leading to low national morale and lack of trust.
Visionary leaders are few and far apart. It’s a quality many lack. It has several viewpoints, one being the ability to inspire what you have in mind, it’s a divine spark that enables one to fully and clearly articulate their policy vision and inspires others to work towards its realization. A case in point is Martin Luther King’s Í have a dream speech’ and Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia trial speech. They communicated their dream in such a way that others had no other option but to do the same. Vision also encompasses consistency of viewpoint, whereby a president stands firm on a policy discourse and should not be easily swayed but explicitly stand by it. Barack Obama stood by Obamacare right up to its implementation. A visionary leader sees how the country should exist and takes steps to get there. They are able to coherently address and solve social issues such unemployment, and building the economy. The cost of a president that lacks vision is inconsistent policies that cancel one another, programs that have undesired results and often pointless.
Cognitive style relates to the ‘conscious intellectual activity of thinking, reasoning and remembering’. Cognitive style is the corner stone of a president term in office as his work requires continuous processing and absorbing briefings on varying aspects of running a country such as health, technology, the economy, security, climate, foreign relations, the military, education to mention a few. All these require the president to apply his mind and make sound decisions. Presidents vary in their cognitive style, for instance Bill Clinton possessed a formidable ability to absorb and process ideas and information, though his political impulses sometimes lead him to substitute mere rationalization for logical analysis. Some presidents are notorious for their deficient understanding of a number of their own policy initiatives, often failing to explain how to drive the policy. The aspect of cognitive style can be assessed when a president is holding a press conference or being interviewed, the level at which the president is able to process his thoughts at that time without being briefed on what to say will be the most revealing. However presidential accomplishments show that intelligence as a standard measure cannot be used as the sole cause of presidential efficacy, because with the right team a president’s lack of sound cognitive style can be filled in by them. When Margaret Thatcher came to power she had little or no interest in foreign affairs but domestic policy. She quickly realized foreign policy issues couldn’t be left undone and her cognitive style saw her built her legacy, demonstrated by her Cold War credentials and her commitment to the United States leadership.
The constant battle of presidential leadership is emotional intelligence. Presidents can be marked by emotional undercurrents that can be problematic in certain respects but don’t necessarily impair their leadership. However other presidents can be ‘emotionally handicapped to the extent of having mood swings of clinical proportions’. This can impede presidential performance as it affects those that work closely with the president. Bill Clinton is famously known for his lack of self-discipline which led to actions that ensued his impeachment. Presidents that are emotionally impaired can have ‘anger and suspiciousness of Shakespearean proportions’. This often leads to the downfall of a president because of the inability to forge lasting relationship in their administration. A case in point is the Donald Trump administration that saw constant firing and a high volume of resignation. It was an administration that lacked organizational capacity and emotional intelligence. It was therefore not surprising that he lost a re-election. The inner torment of a president can overshadow all aspects that made him a president in the first instance because it manifests as a self-destruction. A president should have a healthy mind to be a political operator, it enables him to encompass other qualities that are lacking.
In the end we wish for a combination of Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Kwame Nguruma just to mention a few in one president and envision a president that is cognitively and emotionally intelligent, who is a rousing public communicator, highly organized and talented team running the president’s office, having exceptional political skill and vision. But in the real world human imperfection is forever present therefore it is upon us to decide which of the qualities best work for us and hope that where the president is lacking he will hire the best for the inadequacies. If a president is not a good public communicator, it is imperative that they hire the most talented speech writer and word spinner out there. Election campaigns that include rallies, presidential debates and interviews can shed light into the qualities an aspiring president has. It is therefore upon us to choose quality presidents that stand the test of time because it is ‘only leaders of a special calibre and integrity are able to see the basic problems that affect us all, and who tend to avoid the sterile polemics that limit the vision of many activists’.
Janet Sekgarametso-Senosi
Masters in Politics and International Relations (2013) UB