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Linda Bergthold Headshot

Great Speaker. The Right Experience?

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Maybe you thought I was talking about Barack Obama? No, I was actually referring to Sarah Palin. She will deliver a dynamic speech at the Republican Convention, but is a great speech enough to be the leader we need?

The Republican talking points are trying to convince us that Sarah Palin has MORE experience than Barack Obama. It would seem laughable if it were not so readily accepted by so many. So let's just take a quick look at the type and duration of experience of Palin vs. Obama. We now know a lot more about Palin than we did Friday morning when her candidacy was announced. She received her B.S. in Communications and Journalism in 1987, did a brief stint as a sportcaster, and started out her political career as the head of the PTA in Wasilla, a town of about 9000. She was on the City Council and then ran for Mayor of Wasilla, where she served two terms. She was the Chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission before running for and winning the Governorship of Alaska in December 2006. She has served less than two years as the Governor of Alaska, population 670,000. She never travelled outside the U.S. until she made one trip to visit troops in Kuwait and Germany with a refueling stop in Ireland. Her supporters have suggested that her foreign policy knowledge is linked to the fact that Alaska is next to Russia.

Barack Obama's bio is more well known, but for comparison sake, he went to a prestigious Hawaii High school, graduated from Columbia University (B.S. in Political Science and International Relations) and worked in New York for public interest groups for a year before applying to and being accepted at Harvard Law School, where he served as the President of the Harvard Law Review. He worked as a community organizer for three years on the South Side of Chicago before running for the Illinois State Legislature (Illinois - population 12 million +). He served in the Illinois legislature for 7 years, while also teaching law at the University of Chicago Law School, before he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2003. He has been in the U.S. Senate almost four years, serving on the Foreign Relations Committee, Environment and Public Works, Veterans Affairs, with additional assignments on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Homeland Security and Chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on European Affairs. He has made several official trips to visit U.S. troops and has made additional official trips to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.

Ok. Obama's political experience has been on a larger state and national stage, but let's examine the value of so-called executive experience. The Palin supporters are valiantly trying to make the point that because she has served 22 months as Governor and small town mayor, she has more experience than anyone on the ticket, including McCain. If executive experience is so important, why would we vote for McCain who has none? But that's beside the point here.

What is the value of executive experience? Does all executive experience have the same importance? Is being a Governor really the ONLY qualification for President? If so, should we be electing the CEO of AT&T? I believe that a President should be a leader not a just a manager. Leaders have followers; managers have subordinates. A leader must establish a vision; a manager focuses on objectives. Leaders set direction; managers plan the detail. In summary, Leaders are transformational; managers are transactional.

All this means is that the skill set for a leader is very different from that of an executive. It's not bad to know how to manage, but the skills a manager needs are distinct from the skills a leader needs. You want the President of the United States to be establishing the overall strategy for the country -- not obsessing with the details of the implementation.

Our greatest Presidents have understood that leadership is more than just management - think of Kennedy, Reagan, Roosevelt. Experience means not only years of working in different settings but showing that you have the judgment to make the critical decisions.

If you can imagine Sarah Palin stepping into the Presidency if McCain were to die, and are comfortable with that thought, then you cannot be convinced otherwise. But if you feel slightly uneasy, you might want to consider the decisions Obama has made in the past 20 months -- running a multi-million dollar campaign organization with tremendous discipline and success, making the kinds of judgments about the Iraq war that so resonated with the Iraqis that they were able to support a timeline for withdrawal and decisions about the economy like resisting the trap of an easy gasoline tax rebate that would not solve our energy problem. They say that who you choose for Vice President is one of the most important decisions you will make prior to becoming President - McCain made a hasty, rebound decision and barely vetted Sarah Palin. Obama took his time, did his homework and made the decision to add to his ticket a seasoned and experienced veteran like Joe Biden. Who has the right experience and the best judgment to lead?