Friday, August 7, 2015

An Ex-CEO on U.S. Presidential Leadership: Dissecting Ted Turner’s Pessimistic Stance

The founder of CNN and TNT, two American television networks, Ted Turner maintains that presidential leadership at the federal level is elusive. More particularly, the American electorate’s task is very, very difficult because the federal president must be an expert in so many areas. Ironically, Turner may be overlooking how upper-echelons leadership differs from leadership within organizations, including the U.S. Government.

Turner claims that modern U.S. presidents are expected to excel not just in one policy area; they must be able to tend to a wide range of complex, intricate issues. "Things are so complicated now," Turner says. "Just the financial world is so complicated, to be an expert in that is very, very difficult."[1] While it is certainly true that modern financial instruments like those that swap the financial risk of default to another party are complex, the president of the United States need not have an intricate knowledge of them in order to lead. For one thing, the Secretary of the Treasury typically comes out of the financial world—like Henry Paulson, ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs—and thus can have more subject-specific knowledge; but even in this respect, to have been the CEO of a major Wall Street bank is distinct from supervising traders directly.

Similarly, the chief executive of the U.S. Government cannot be expected to have intricate knowledge of the workings of the federal agencies. Leaders atop organizations (and even societies) deal more abstractly with principles than with details. I submit that Turner obfuscates the respective natures of upper- and lower-level leadership. In fact, the latter can better be said to be management rather than leadership because typically a vision is formulated and enunciated at the top.

In short, a U.S. president need not know how CDOs or swaps on financial derivatives are put together on Wall Street. Besides the fact that Treasury can more easily get that information and even translate what it means on a more abstract level, “micromanaging,” as Jimmy Carter was so accused of doing as president, has a large opportunity cost.[2] The federal president essentially oversees an empire of fifty republics, or member-states., which differ culturally. He or she must assume this perspective in looking at particular policy domains. Even just in respect to each one, the matters that reach the president’s desk involve seemingly intractable clashes between principles (and interests).

Therefore, Ted Turner is seriously misunderstanding the nature of presidential leadership in claiming, "Back in the time of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, all the books that were in the Library of Congress fit in one room. You could read them all. Now, a million books a year are printed—or over that. There's no way you can read them all."[3] For a sitting president to be reading a book on electrical engineering, for example, would be rather strange—not to mention having a high opportunity cost; more suitable books include those on past presidents as well as on the rise and decline of empires (and war and peace).

Meanwhile, the secretary of the U.S. Treasury might be reading the latest book on how much systemic risk Wall Street banks really represent to the financial system and the overall economy. The under-secretaries could be reading texts that are more specific. To presume that the U.S. president must also read those texts (as well as those on subjects relevant to the other cabinet secretaries and their respective deputies) is to vastly misunderstand what presidents do and what presidential leadership is. A president need not know every detail of everything in order to come up with a viable vision for America. That a former CEO could miss this point mystifies me.

As Turner himself says, "You have to specialize, and that's very hard for leaders, particularly political leaders that have to know a lot of different things. It's almost impossible for one man to be able to do it all."[4] For a president to specialize is for him or her to assume the vantage-point of the U.S. as a whole—whether that be looking at the government, economy, or society as wholes or even the U.S. itself as one whole—in formulating a principle or even a vision and to use (again specialized) political skills to sell it. All this does not come close to having to “know a lot of different things” and “do it all.” To be sure, the consolidation of power at the federal level in the U.S. (at the expense of the States) since the 1930s has indeed put more policy domains on the federal president's desk. From the standpoint of time-management, Turner's point that a president cannot do everything resonates, for no person has an infinite amount of time and energy. Generally speaking, as the number of items on a president's schedule increases, each item gets less attention. In short, the modern president is apt to be stretched too thin, but this is because of the increasing imbalance in the federalism rather than because the president has to read more books. 

1. Lisa Capretto, “Ted Turner On Why It’s So Hard To Find Good Political Leaders,” The Huffington Post, August 6, 2015.
2. The cost of the benefits of foregone alternatives lost, in this case by micromanaging rather than leading.
3. Capretto, “Ted Turner.”
4. Ibid.