If Peter Drucker Rated Leadership in the 2008 Presidential Election

Jeffrey Krames

If Peter Drucker—the inventor of management and the chronicler of great leaders—was still alive, he probably would not have been surprised by the outcome of the presidential election. I believe he would have known that the Barrack Obama leadership strategy was superior to John McCain's weeks before Election Day.

Drucker was a shrewd observer of our presidents. He noted that ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, the most charismatic candidate not only won the majority of elections, but also stayed in power the longest. There was John F. Kennedy, of course, but there was also Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the only two-term presidents to complete both of their terms since Dwight D. Eisenhower (Nixon won but didn't finish his second term).

However, Drucker felt that charisma was a poor indicator of how a prospective candidate would perform as president.

Drucker felt that charisma—by itself—was a dangerous leadership quality. "Indeed, charisma becomes the undoing of leaders... leadership is not magnetic personality; it is not 'making friends and influencing people'—that is salesmanship," Drucker asserted. "[Charisma] makes them inflexible, convinced of their own infallibility, unable to change."

The most charismatic leaders of the 20th century, Drucker proclaimed, were Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini. He called them "mis-leaders."

Drucker's choice for America's greatest president of the 20th century confirms this: Harry Truman, America's 33rd president, "the-buck-stops-here" president. Drucker's admiration of Truman had nothing to do with charisma. "Truman was as bland as a dead mackerel," he said. However, "Everybody who worked for him worshipped him because he was absolutely trustworthy."

In addition to Truman, Drucker rated Ronald Reagan as one of the most effective presidents of the last century. "Reagan's great strength was not charisma, as is commonly thought," Drucker explained, "but that he knew exactly what he could do and what he could not do."

Unique Leadership Qualities According to Drucker

Drucker felt that the qualities that make leaders great are specific to each leader. He regarded Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur as extraordinary leaders during the second World War. However, "no two of them shared any 'personality traits' or any 'qualities.'"

Weeks before the election, Drucker would have known that Obama would win. The presence of the following leadership indicators would have been decisive in Drucker's mind in evaluating the leadership that led to an Obama victory:

  • Leadership and Exhibiting Consistency and Decisiveness: Drucker felt that consistency was an absolute critical quality of effective leadership, and from the first day of the campaign to the last, Obama's message of change did not waver. Obama also defined his opponent's campaign by describing it as a third Bush term, which resonated with most voters. McCain's message, however, was anything but consistent, shifting from "experience," to "change," to Obama's alleged "association with domestic terrorists," and back again.
  • Leadership and Winning Customers and Non-Customers: Drucker urged leaders not to forget non-customers who have the potential to be turned into customers. From the start—in fact, from before the start, from the stirring speech he made at the 2004 Democratic Convention—Obama said, "There are no red states, there are no blue states, there is the United States of America." He reached out to democrats and independents, but also to republicans. Obama turned out the most enthusiastic and eager youth vote since JFK in 1960. These moves allowed him to win over red states such as Indiana, Virginia and Colorado that would have been unthinkable only four years ago.
  • Leadership and Maintaining Only One or Two Priorities: Drucker felt that the best leaders maintained no more than two priorities at a time. He said he never met a chief executive who could practice effective leadership while handling more than that at once. Obama stayed focused on a very few core ideas throughout the campaign. Whenever the topic of the Iraqi War came up, for example, he pointed to the 2002 speech he made denouncing the idea of an offensive, non-premeditated war in the Middle East. Another example: Once the financial meltdown hit, his stump speech was all about creating jobs and lowering taxes for the middle class.
  • Leadership and Showing the Ability to Hire: Drucker felt that the most effective leaders could hire, fire and promote people. The one hiring decision a presidential candidate makes is the selection of a running mate. Obama's choice of Joe Biden proved that he was not afraid to be surrounded by strong personalities (which bodes well for his selection of a Cabinet). He showed that same important leadership quality when he sat down with economic heavyweights such as Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett and Robert Rubin. McCain's selection of Sarah Palin was an ill-fated choice, which became a constant, living example of McCain's erratic, shoot-from-the-hip style of leadership.
  • Leadership and Having a Superior Organization and Ground Game: In Drucker's world, the most effective leaders are organized, able to prioritize and maintain a high level of morale. Because of the quality of Obama's leadership, his campaign was nearly flawless in its execution. It held together beautifully to the final day—which marked contrast to McCain's "circular firing squad" organization that developed in the final weeks of the campaign when it became increasingly clear that he would not win. Also, Obama's campaign often did unprecedented things. For example, Obama's "50-state strategy" seemed like a fool's errand early on, but his organization in red states helped him win several key states that seemed out of reach only a few months earlier. With his huge money advantage, it is not surprising that Obama had a better get-out-the-vote ground game. Obama's team used the Rove-Bush playbook to beat McCain and the Republicans at their own game. Every aspect of the Obama campaign seemed better executed, steadier, less erratic and more consistent with Drucker's principles of organization, discipline and accountability.

Obama’s strong leadership certainly led him to execute the stronger campaign, and there is no doubting that he has charisma. However, given Drucker's view on charisma, Drucker would have been cynical of Barack Obama, at least at the outset. It is likely he would have viewed Obama as a JFK-like contender, and despite Kennedy's iconic popularity, Drucker did not give America's 36th president high marks: "John F. Kennedy may have been the most charismatic person to occupy the White House. Yet few presidents got as little done." It is yet to be seen if Obama will be a great leader, or just a popular one.