Hillary Clinton: Leader or manager?

Clinton will need to convince the American electorate that she not only gets but also possesses what it takes to be an effective president. Photo: AP

NEW YORK, July 17, 2013 — During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton said Barak Obama did not “get what it takes to be an effective President.” She took issue with his pledge to be a leader who inspires and provides a vision for the nation, not one who will make sure “everything’s running on time” in the federal bureaucracy.

Clinton insisted, “Being president means being both CEO and COO of one of the largest and most complex organizations in the world.”

SEE RELATED: Why are we talking about 2016 and Hillary Clinton?

Team Obama retorted by saying Clinton “sounded like she was running for chief office manager — not commander in chief.”

David Axelrod stated, “The truth is that we’re not running for chief of staff. We’re running for President of the United States.” He questioned whether Clinton saw the “big picture,” adding, “I think sometimes there’s a relentless pursuit of the little picture over there at the Clinton campaign.”

Two issues should stand out in early speculation about a Hillary Clinton bid for the White House in 2016. The first is her “managerial” theory of leadership.

As pointed out by James O’Toole in Business Week, “managerialism was, until relatively recently, the dominant school of thought in the corporate world.” It mandated “the creation of large, centralized planning staffs and the top-down leadership methods known collectively as ‘change management.’”

SEE RELATED: Benghazi will not keep Hillary Clinton from the presidency

 As head of her husband’s health care initiative in his first term, Clinton assembled an “impressive team of technocrats” and produced a “detailed national health care plan.” O’Toole described it as a “near-textbook case of managerialism.”

The problem, according to O’Toole, is that “managerialist approaches seldom worked well in practice” and “proved almost totally ineffective” in bringing about change. There are few examples, he asserted, of CEOs successfully transforming organizations “by preparing detailed blueprints for change and then directing the implementation of those plans downward through the ranks.”

Successful transformations, he wrote, have “almost always been the result of leaders who offer inspiring visions and values, identify clear goals, and then provide the context and opportunity for those below them to participate in the design and implementation of the actual business of change.”

The question then is whether Hilary Clinton still adheres to a managerial theory of leadership. Her tenure as Secretary of State suggests that she does.

From the beginning, Clinton viewed her job as “to get around and restore confidence in American leadership.” She did this by pursuing “odometer diplomacy,” tirelessly globetrotting “to bolster America’s relationships abroad.”

She traveled nearly 1 million miles — 1.6 million kilometers — and visited a record 112 countries. She spoke of “global cooperation” and built an agenda around what one commentator identified as “gender equality, Internet freedom and the environment.”

Essentially, Clinton managed U.S. foreign relations and a set of 21st century issues focused on the “long game.” She did not lead.

According to Aaron David Miller, former State Department official and fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, enshrinement in the secretary of state “Hall of Fame” requires that one negotiate a “consequential agreement,” defuse a “major crisis,” articulate a “successful doctrine,” or “fashion a policy for peace or war.” Hillary Clinton did none of these.

In fact, she was relegated to the sidelines on matters related to peace and war, overshadowed by special envoys such as the late Richard Holbrook, the National Security Council, White House advisors, and the president. She was a loyal team player. But as Miller notes, “great secretaries of state don’t just implement the White House’s policies, they play a critical role in shaping them.”

The other issue to consider in light of possible second Clinton bid for the presidency is her managerial competence. Three examples of incompetence, drawn from different stages of her career, are instructive.

Her leadership of the health care initiative in the early 1990s was deeply flawed. As described by O’Toole, she “closeted for months” in the White House with her team, reviewing relevant data and opposing views. The final plan “included ideas from numerous, conflicting ideological and professional camps, assuming what they each would need to have in the plan in order to support it.”

Yet “by deciding what these players required without involving them in the process,” the plan was dead-on-arrival. This led to “gridlock” and “years of a worsening health care crisis.”

Her 2008 presidential primary campaign was, as one headline read, “a study in missteps.” Politico’s Jim Vandehei and David Paul Kuhn wrote that Clinton wanted “voters to decide the nomination based on who can coolly and competently run the country.” Nevertheless, at the height of the primary, she oversaw two major staff shake-ups in two months. She also “left a trail of unpaid bills” and “had to loan her own campaign $5 million to keep it afloat.”

According to Vandehei and Kuhn, her campaign “badly underestimated her main adversary … miscalculated the importance of organizing caucus states and was caught flat-footed after failing to lock up the nomination on Super Tuesday.” 

They claimed Obama ran “a more consistent, disciplined and technologically savvy campaign.” 

Benghazi is the most recent example of her “leadership and management deficiencies.” At least this was the charge the Accountability Review Board report leveled against “senior levels” of Clinton’s State Department. 

State reportedly “spent lots of money on other outposts with far less risk than the one in eastern Libya” and either didn’t read or ignored Ambassador Steven’s numerous requests for more security.

Sen. Rand Paul, in a widely publicized comment, told Clinton, “Had I been president at the time … I would have relieved you of your post.”

All of this suggests that Hillary Clinton will need to convince the American electorate that she not only gets but also possesses what it takes to be an effective president.

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Michael Mickler

Dr. Michael Mickler is a journalist and church historian whose specializations are in the history of Christianity, the American religious experience, new religions, and interreligious peace-building. His interests extend to the remainder of the universe.


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