The Making of a President

Mount RushmoreI have often wondered what convinces an individual to believe that he or she is worthy of being President of the United States. I’ve read stories about former presidents like Lyndon Baines Johnson that tell of mothers or grandmothers predicting greatness at the time of birth. I just finished a biography of Bill Clinton which suggested that he had wanted to be President from the time that he was young and that he had convinced his friends and family that it would happen long before he was even old enough to run for office. Others, like George Washington, appear to have reluctantly taken on the job more from a sense of duty than a desire for power. Regardless of what motivates the individuals who have sought the presidency, I have to ask what makes them feel that leading our powerful nation is within the realm of their skill sets.

Most recently the Republican party fielded seventeen potential candidates. Several among them, including the eventual nominee, were seemingly ludicrous, reaching far beyond their abilities and yet each firmly believed that he/she was ready to handle the demands. The Democrats only had two choices, mostly out of deference to the woman that they felt needed to be given her due, despite the fact that her track record in public life is not nearly as outstanding as the party would like us to believe. The level of confidence that I see among political candidates is stunning and as an educator, mother and grandmother I would love to know how to inculcate such qualities of self worth in the many truly outstanding young people that I know. 

I found a hint as to what differentiates those who win the ultimate prize and those who fall by the wayside in a biography of Bill Clinton that I recently read. During his high school years young Bill was often bested by a young man who seemed more likely to be destined for greatness. In contest after contest he beat Bill and was well on his way to a political career long before Bill had won a single office. Along the way this man decided to drop out of contention. He quite simply disliked the price that he and his family would have to pay to rise through the ranks. He abhorred the loss of privacy and the compromising of his principles that seemed to be required in the political world. He left politics and instead rose to prominence in the private sector. Bill on the other hand molded his entire existence around an unwavering desire to one day be President. Virtually every choice that he made in life was predicated on the effect that it might have on his political career.

Right now it’s quite popular in educational circles to speak of the importance of grit in determining success in any endeavor. The people who eventually reach their goals are those so determined to make it that they are unwilling to allow any obstacles to get in their way. Perhaps it is resolve that is the ultimate factor in whether or not someone makes it to the top. If so, how might those of us who work with children teach them how to work hard and stay focused on the tasks that will help them to achieve? Are such skills innate or is it possible to cultivate them? For that matter do we even want to create hard driven adults or is it best to only encourage our young to follow their hearts wherever they may lead?

My father was somewhat of a perfectionist. I often believe that I inherited my own tendencies in that regard from him. I am admittedly a high energy, competitive individual. I want to be the best that I might possibly be at everything that I try. I am more than willing to put in the heavy lifting to get where I want to be. I once spent an entire summer perfecting a baton twirling routine with bumps and lumps on my head as proof of my work ethic. I am one of those people who will get somewhere early and be the last to leave to prove my mettle. Still when the higher ranks of the educational world were within my grasp I flinched. My school district selected me to be one of their leaders and was even willing to pay for the education and certifications that I needed. I ultimately chose a different path because much like the young man who had been Bill Clinton’s early nemesis I decided that I did not feel comfortable at the top. It felt too distant from the heart of schools, too removed from the students. I continued in a role that better suited my disposition, that of a facilitator, a right hand assistant.

One of my all time favorite professors taught a Public Administration course that I took when earning my Masters degree. He had spent years working on important projects on the Beltway in Washington D.C. He insisted that most of the policies that affect us are created by unknown people who work in the shadows of the many agencies that dominate our nation’s capitol. They are lifetime bureaucrats who are never elected and rarely leave even when a new party takes over. They know more about how things work in our government than those for whom we vote. They are the unseen drones who wield power over us without our ever realizing that they even exist.

Since first hearing about the worker bees who do the heavy lifting to keep our nation running I have found myself wondering if it is possible that they are indeed the most powerful, the Rasputins among us, the handlers who create the public faces of our leaders. If that is the case then maybe those who run for the highest offices have learned along the way that all they really need is a crew of smart and trusted associates to help them. They understand that they need not stand all alone in running a country or a state or a business. They do not become candidates for President because they believe that they have all of the answers but because they know which people will help them to gather the information that they need. That is a very different skill set indeed than the one that we often imagine is needed. It requires the mind of a manager, someone who has a knack for seeing the big picture and all of its working parts, someone who knows how to motivate people and stay on top of things. When viewed from this angle, it becomes apparent that the ingredients for the making of a president are far more complex than a few simple character traits.

The truth is that very few of us ever aspire to the job of leading a country. For those who do, the requirements seem to begin with a certain level of desire and confidence. Unswerving grit helps but matters little without intellect and managerial skills. Quite frankly someone without at least a touch of charisma may never achieve the loyal following of supporters needed to rise to the top. Finally the person must be willing to pay the high cost of public exposure which always exacts its incredible price. I suspect that in the end few of us would want such a life either for ourselves or for our children. Still there is nothing wrong with knowing how to encourage those very special youngsters who somehow have the strength of mind and body to endure the rigors of taking their exceptional abilities all the way to the top. A good parent or teacher sees the potential of greatness and shows the child how to develop it to the utmost. We never really know from whence the next Abraham Lincoln may come. He or she may be crawling across a room right now in preparation for one day leading us into the future.