This past week, two very different presidents took their respective turns to define where their two nations are now – and, more importantly – where they should be, as they face the future. These men were, of course, Donald Trump in America and Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa. And just by coincidence, this author is reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest book, Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times. Considering what we have been seeing and hearing about the state of both nations, this book makes for a particularly apt read.
Kearns Goodwin’s book is a beautifully crafted comparative study of leadership on the part of four American presidents: the two Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin), Abraham Lincoln, and Lyndon Johnson. Connecting her four individual studies, the author sets out more general lessons about leadership, drawn from the four men’s very different circumstances, personalities, and challenges in order to see what may be applicable for all leaders. Kearns Goodwin is a highly regarded presidential scholar, and her newest book is a kind of distillation of all that she has learned from her decades of study of leadership – and an effort to deliver a well-footnoted handbook of the “do’s” and “don’ts” in the leadership department. There is even the faint echo of Niccolo Machiavelli’s own such study of governing styles among Italy’s city-states, The Prince, from half a millennia earlier.
Key among Kearns Goodwin’s observations is that it matters how a leader handles his own personal and political crises, and how those crises make the leader and would-be leader grow in stature, or change the way the individual sees the world and his place in it. Or, as she says: “Scholars who have studied the development of leaders have situated resilience, the ability to sustain ambition in the face of frustration, at the heart of potential leadership growth. More important than what happened to them was how they responded to these reversals, how they managed in various ways to put themselves back together, how these watershed experiences at first impeded, then deepened, and finally and decisively moulded their leadership.”
Watching Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday evening in Washington (or early Wednesday morning, if you were sitting in Johannesburg overdosing on espresso), it was striking how quickly he moved from his initial call for bipartisan possibilities to denunciations of his opposition’s hellish desire to leave the nation open to unlimited illegal immigration and all the chaos, crime, and destruction of national treasure that would entail. And if that were not enough, there was his warning that the Democrats and their preaching of the gospel of socialism that would utterly destroy the nation’s economy and society – the very same economy he had been so successful in managing. We were right back to the strident, angry “American Carnage” of his inaugural address.
Not much room for co-operation, except on a few throwaway proposals like ending childhood cancer and Aids, or pushing forward somehow on infrastructure, at least in the abstract, all things which no right-thinking person would disagree with doing anyway.
And so, how would one evaluate Donald Trump by Kearns Goodwin’s criteria – both on the overall basis of his presidency so far, and from the evidence presented in this speech?
All leaders have ambition, that is a given, but that ambition needs to be tempered in several ways. The first comes from having resilience in the face of adversity, as Kearns Goodwin described it. But the second comes from being able to draw lessons from those challenges: how to face inevitable future obstacles; how to motivate others; and how to bounce back from those roadblocks but then go on to communicate a shared vision to others. It is rather like the way Harry Truman (the US president at the end of World War II and through the Korean conflict) acerbically had described his main task in office. Truman had said that he spent most of his time in the White House “trying to get some damned fool” to do what he should have figured out for himself to do in the first place.
Trump, of course, has ambition by the truckload, but it seems he is intent on dividing rather than communicating and motivating a shared vision to an ever-growing circle of people. Instead, he seems intent on forever drawing on the one life lesson he learned as a young adult at the foot of his mentor and uber-combative attorney, Roy Cohn, that if someone punches you, always punch back harder. This is virtually the same lesson offered by Sean Connery’s character in The Untouchables, the idea about always bringing the biggest gun to any fight. Such a stance really flies in the face of the observation by another renowned presidential scholar, Richard Neustadt, that in a democratic government, the real power of the presidency is to persuade, not to order. But when Trump insists on living by the Cohn rule, there is always the chance that somebody else, sometime, somewhere, will bring a bigger, newer, faster gun to the party, just exactly as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to have done in the tussle over the border wall and the government shutdown.
And what of Cyril Ramaphosa? Rather than a screed about his political opposition, his nationally watched speech seemed a laundry list of efforts planned, underway, or envisioned to improve education, investment in the economy, and the management of his government. Lots and lots of them, even if much of the criticism of his speech seems to have been focused on the relative moderation of his initiatives, and concern there was too much step-by-step caution as opposed to bright, broad strokes. True, he made a few “revolutionary” announcements, such as a plan to break up Eskom, to begin to dole out government held, unproductive land, and the delivery of electronic tablets to students across the nation – but relatively little in the way of a broad vision for the future.
This caution and methodicalness seem to have been learned from earlier experiences. Just as he was guiding the new National Union of Mineworkers into their first large-scale strike, a relative lack of thorough preparation proved his undoing in the end results. It did not happen a second time, however. When he was passed over for the deputy presidency in the Mandela cabinet, rather than sulking in his tent, Achilles-like, he reordered his course, made his way unto the business world, and focused on making money and then thinking much longer term, strategically, how, if he bided his time, he could yet prevail in a future, hard-fought, intra-party struggle for leadership. But only just.
And so, we have two men before us who occupy positions of great power – one is impulsive, one is careful and cautious. One is prepared to learn the hard lessons and be better prepared for the next round, while the other is convinced, so it seems, that there is little he can ever learn that will be of use for his already “stable genius”.
The big questions are, of course, whether Trump can ever be prepared to build support outwards to move beyond the voters who got him where he is – his base. And, further, can he actually learn to listen to those who may know more about something important than the 72-year-old man-child believes he already does – before some vast disaster happens.
For Cyril Ramaphosa, by contrast, the big question is whether he can shuck off just enough of his now-customary caution and deliberative style to take sufficiently bold steps to reform his administration top to bottom and excise the pervasive rot. Moreover, the question is whether he can do this before all his careful weighing and measuring gives others the opening to stymie or unravel all his plans, and thereby make a shambles of the ideas that motivate him. DM
Sheep wool never sheds.