Barack Obama, Mitt Romney and thousands of other U.S. office-seekers are on track to spend an aggregate $9.8 billion this year, explaining why we should vote for them -- or distrust their opponents. Plenty of ads and speeches lie ahead. But facile campaign rhetoric hardly translates into good governance. Is there a better way of screening candidates?
Geoff Smart enters this debate with a new book, Leadocracy, and a fascinating perspective. He's not a political scientist, pollster, former campaign adviser or someone who once held high elected office. He's just a businessman from Colorado. But his line of work earns him the right to critique the ways we pick our politicians. He runs an elite consulting firm, ghSmart, that has spent many years trying to find top talent in the corporate world.
Smart and his colleagues are the go-to guys for Blackstone Group and other private equity firms, as they seek the best possible chief executives and other leaders for portfolio companies. They hire ghSmart to run candidates through multi-hour screenings that amount to a CAT scan of each contender's career. Afterward, ghSmart presents a detailed workup of candidates' strengths and weaknesses along more than 25 dimensions.
Gauging success in government is a different story, but not totally different. In December 2010, Colorado's incoming governor, John Hickenlooper, asked Smart for detailed, systematic advice about who to pick for the state's cabinet. Tough challenge! Smart couldn't continue to view government with the indifference and faint frustration that's typical of many business experts. He had to roll up his sleeves, take stock of what government jobs are all about, and develop selection standards that make sense for the public sector.
In Leadocracy, Smart's most striking insights come in Chapter 6. He analyzes why we're so often disappointed with the candidates we pick. Then he sets out what he believes is a better way for voters of all political leanings to figure out who they ought to be backing.
Smart's list of what's wrong with the current system is as follows: We place too much emphasis on likeability, public-speaking ability, physical attractiveness of candidates and hot-button issues that don't have much to do with the real issues that plague our communities. Even worse, we tend to vote for candidates who "feel our pain" and reflect their understanding of our problems but lack any ability to solve them.
Sound familiar? Most of us have been making all these mistakes since we picked our sophomore class president in high school. Despite constant opportunities to pick candidates more intelligently, we keep blundering into the same sorts of poor choices, election after election.
The solution, Smart argues, is to create a candidate scorecard, tied to the issues that matter most to you. List a series of measurable outcomes that you want to see. These could involve government's overall budget or its performance in specific economic or policy areas (such as housing, health care, the military, etc.) Then gauge candidates' competency along three crucial dimensions.
First is an ability to analyze. Are candidates quick learners? Can they think critically and strategically? Do they listen effectively? Do they understand what outcomes are desired and how to achieve them?
Next comes an ability to allocate. Do candidates set high standards and smart priorities? Do they hire good people? Do they focus well on planning, efficiency and organization?
Finally, the ability to align. Do candidates treat others with respect, build winning teams, and know how to blend persistence and flexibility? Can they motivate others with pragmatic optimism?
All these are the hallmarks of political leaders who get things done in office, without necessarily being the most dazzling candidate at the debates. In Smart's book, that's all right. He finishes Leadocracy with a vision of a public sector that helps create a safe, stable society -- where "stuff works" -- but where government is almost invisible in people's lives. All that's missing, he contends, are the right candidates, and an electorate that's savvy enough to recognize them when they come along.