By now much has been written on presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s gaffe about the 47% of Americans who believe themselves to be “victims” and who supposedly don’t pay taxes. But what does the tenor and the tone of these remarks say to us about who Mitt Romney is? And what does this say about his suitability to be president?
Mitt Romney reminds me of a friend I had in high school. I’ll call him John. John was the son of successful, wealthy parents. He was given every opportunity a boy could have hoped for in life. Tennis lessons, European travel and limitless access to his parents’ country club fairways. I recall with some amusement the weekend that this three-time varsity letterman had to make the agonizing decision over which college to attend. With acceptance letters from a half dozen schools, would he pick Harvard, Princeton or perhaps Yale?
One day we were driving through one of the poorer parts of Washington, D.C. when John looked out of the window and declared with frustration: “I wish these people would take responsibility for themselves! Look at the way they live! How are we going to teach these people the value of hard work?”
Even at the age of seventeen I was taken aback. What did John know of this? How could he fail to see that not everyone had access to the opportunities that played such a critical role in his own early success? Not long thereafter we drifted apart. Years later we were reacquainted and I could see that he had become a great family man. He had also become the pillar of his church; a man often lauded for his countless acts of kindness to his neighbors and his commitment to charity. One day he accidently sent me an email about Barack Obama he had been circulating. Its content was a screed about Obama’s origins and his desire to turn America into a radical socialist state. I saw, again, the young man I had known decades before.
Does John offer a clue on how Mitt Romney could make such a campaign blunder—the same Mitt Romney we liked in his convention video? John, others, and possibly Romney are not “bad people” — just self-referential in the way they evaluate many things. It is not that they lack compassion. It’s just that their capacity for it seems to extend only to those who are just like them. They are fully capable of “walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes” as long as the other guy is wearing Gucci or at least Weejuns. If the guy on foot is unlucky enough to be in frayed secondhand shoes then it gets considerably harder, if not impossible.
In his elegant book, The Powers to Lead, former dean of Harvard’s JFK School, Joseph Nye, quoted from a 2006 article which appeared in Psychological Science. It tells us that “Empirical studies have shown that the more powerful are less likely to take on the perspective of others.”
If my experience is valid, I would add that this is especially true for those who were powerful from youth.
Popular culture tells us that there is more than one “Master of the Universe” on Wall Street. And even if they are not on Wall Street, as F. Scott Fitzgerald tells us in The Great Gatsby, the rich are different. This is especially true of those who have convinced themselves that they got rich through their own singular efforts. They often think that they have a kind of special genius that makes them uniquely qualified to opine on everything, even without study or first-hand knowledge.
This week, there was a fascinating piece on how Romney handled the Republican convention and his apparent propensity to place himself in the center of every decision, including full rewrites of his speech. The speculation had it that Romney’s overconfidence in his talents has led him to believe that his judgment is pitch perfect on every element of the campaign. Let’s hope that the campaign setbacks over Libya and the leaked fundraising video have changed his view.
This takes on importance because leadership gurus tell us that only a small subset of leaders is capable of carrying their skills from one professional culture to another. We often see it when those outside of politics come to Washington from other endeavors and fail to understand or operate successfully in this new milieu.
As Nye points out: “Understanding context is crucial for effective leadership… [not all but] many leaders have a fixed repertoire of skills, which limits and conditions their responses to new situations.”
As the presidential campaign now moves into the crucial weeks of the debates, it will be vital to look at the candidates in the context of such analyses of leadership and style.
The issues are important but so too is the emotional intelligence the candidates bring to the job.
“Leaders must be entrepreneurs of identity,” Nye recounts. “The success of their leadership hinges on an ability to turn ‘me’ and ‘you’ into ‘us’.”
Romney still has time to change our perception of him, but this will depend on whether he can show the capacity to place himself in the context of the presidency and to assure us that he understands the essence of our national identity. With, perhaps, a limited “repertoire of [leadership] skills” he must convince us that he can turn this divided nation from a country of diverse “yous” into a united country called “us.”