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Can Politicians be Principled Leaders?: Reflections on the Republican Debates

Who will Inspire us to be Better than we are?

We hear a lot these days from the Republican candidates for President about the importance of leadership. Donald Trump tells us he will lead like no one else can [He seems to believe everything he does no one can match him. I agree, especially when it comes to insulting other candidates]. Dr. Carson talks about leadership but leaders have to be a bit more assertive, in my opinion, to deal with the myriad of problems and characters in the global arena. I have a hard time picturing the good doctor negotiating with Vladimir Putin. Marco Rubio and Carley Fiorina seem to have good leadership skills at least with respect to command of material and being succinct in answering questions. Other candidates have their strengths and weaknesses, as is expected.

The one character trait that is difficult to measure is whether these candidates are/would be principled leaders. In other words, would they act based on their values -- what they believe in -- or would they find a way around it because of political considerations. Will they set an ethical tone at the top that encourages integrity, responsibility, and accountability?

It’s clear that the electorate – at least Republican voters – favor outsiders in this election cycle. I think we all understand why. So many of us are disappointed with government and politicians. Problems arise and nothing is done to solve them, like the immigration issue; our crumbling infrastructure; out of control national debt; and so on. Problems fester and grow worse with each passing day, week, month, and year. Kicking the can down the road is the game those in Congress love to play.

One problem in choosing someone who is not a politician to be the next President is running the government successfully is not the same as, and requires a different skill set than, running a business. Government runs best (or should) through consensus-building. It is a collaborative process. A candidate can’t run the government by fiat, as Donald Trump would have you believe.

So, the question really is who is the best candidate (assuming you are a Republican) for consensus-building? Ronald Regan did it. Bill Clinton did it. Can Carley Fiorina do it? Well, she had her problems along those lines at Hewlett-Packard. I don’t think Dr. Carson has those skills having watched the debate last week. A consensus builder has to be dynamic. Perhaps Marco Rubio fits the bill. Ted Cruz is definitely a principled leader and may be able to garner support across the aisle, although his principles may get in the way of practical solutions. That’s not a bad thing but can make it difficult to run a government.

Let’s hope leadership skills become revealed as the debates go forward on both sides of the aisle. The insult-driven frame of reference for debate questions of CNN made it more difficult to probe the very values we need to consider in the next President. We need questioners to ask about principles and ethical values in the context of domestic and international issues, not how one candidate responds to another candidate’s criticisms. Maybe that is best left to interviews on cable news.

We need the next President to be someone who can inspire us to be better than we really are. To make us feel s/he can argue from a point of strength with world leaders and keep us safe in these troubled times. To make other countries jealous of who we are, what we stand for, and what we are willing to do to better ourselves and humanity; in other words to be another JFK.

I’m looking for the next leader to utter words that will galvanize our national will to do good; to be good; and to lead us back to the future by restoring what it truly means for America to be exceptional. Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of that value and our calling.

Of all the quotes from JFK, the one that stands out in my mind as I finish this blog is: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 22, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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