Some people call me a grumpy old man. Well, I’m beyond grumpy. I’m verging on outraged. A couple of years ago, I came out of retirement (I wasn’t very good at it anyway) to write a book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone? I couldn’t sit silently by and watch this country that I love so much continue to veer off course. My goal was to light a fire—to get people thinking about where we’re headed. I felt a sense of extreme urgency about our need to put a leader in the White House, not just a sound bite with a good haircut. Well, my book has received an overwhelming response, but the campaign year still feels like the silly season. I’m not sure the media got my message.
You’d think that with 80 percent of the American public saying we’re on the wrong track, there would be a lot of serious discussion about leadership in this election. Not so. The media cover every twitch and gaffe of the candidates. We know where they buy their suits (and pantsuits) and where they go to church. We know their bowling scores and whether they prefer a beer and a shot or a glass of Chablis. But how much do we really know about their leadership qualities?
I want to hear specifics. Show me instances where the candidates have demonstrated creativity in solving problems, courage in the face of adversity, curiosity about people who aren’t like them, and the ability to communicate forcefully, with friends and enemies alike. Show me examples of competence—that’s a quality in short supply these days. Show me examples of conviction and good old-fashioned common sense. I know the candidates can talk the talk. They’re politicians. Can they put some actions behind those words? I’m not so sure.
Here’s another thing I want to know before I cast my vote—and this is a pet peeve of mine: Who is going to be on their teams if they’re elected? The presidency is not a one-man or one-woman show. If we’ve learned nothing else in recent history, we’ve learned that it matters who is appointed secretary of defense, or secretary of state, or attorney general. It matters who the key advisers are—the people who have the president’s ear. But have you noticed that when you ask a candidate about possible appointments, you get some drivel about how it’s premature to name names? Why should it be such a secret? When have you ever heard a reporter press a candidate about this? I think we should demand an answer. Let’s hear their lists.
I’ve never been commander in chief, but I’ve been a chief executive officer, and I know that you’re nothing without your team. If you want to be a great leader, you’ve got to surround yourself with great people.
My message to each candidate is simple: Prove that you’re a leader, and name the team—now—that will back you up. That’s what America deserves.
Lee Iacocca is a former chief executive officer of Chrysler Corp. and the author of the book Where Have All the Leaders Gone?