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Who'd Be the Better Boss: McCain or Obama?

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Imagine if you were interviewing John McCain and Barack Obama for a CEO post. You might ask:

Tell us about a high performing team that you've built. What made it high-performing?

Can you give us an example of how you have overcome resistance to bring about a needed change?

Please share some examples of your ability and willingness to be decisive. Can you tell us about a time when a lack of decisiveness got you into trouble?

These are questions recently drafted for Barack Obama and John McCain by a room full of leaders from many walks of life. While we would consider such questions crucial insight to gain from a potential senior executive, to my knowledge we've never asked them of our presidential candidates. Here are some more leadership questions for our potential chief executives:

What are the attributes and competencies you value most in yourself that will serve you well in the White House?

The internet and technology have flattened the political playing field, allowing for more participation and collective decision making. How will you create a more participatory democracy and give people the opportunity to influence decision making?

The president's role requires decisiveness. Please share some examples of your ability and willingness to be decisive. Can you tell us about a time when a lack of decisiveness got you into trouble. In retrospect, what would you have done differently?

Tell us about a time when your judgment was tested in crisis. What do you want us to appreciate about your judgment?

Candidates go through a funny sort of a job interview -- more a protracted media war than a focused grilling session -- but it's past time for John McCain and Barack Obama to tell us what kind of leaders they would be. After all, we need to know: what kind of decision maker would Barack Obama be? If John McCain were CEO of a troubled company (or country, ahem), would he be able to right the ship? We know their stances on Iraq, their religious affiliations, and their favorite TV shows (McCain: "24", Obama: Sportscenter (??)), but not how they would lead a team.

And so, a group of eminent leaders from many domains, from popular leadership authors such as Ken Blanchard and Patrick Lencioni, to social entrepreneurs to military leaders and clergy gathered at Harvard to develop a list of core questions about presidential leadership.

Leadership is not a soft skill. It directly impacts the bottom line in business, and I hope good leadership will lift our country's bottom line. Research from the consulting firm Hay Group shows 35% of the difference in employee engagement and discretionary effort is directly a result of the work environment leaders create. How would that translate into Congress' ability to get things done? Plus, the climate a leader creates accounts for up to 25 percent of the variance in an organization's performance - and this is the bottom line: productivity, growth, profit.

But what does presidential leadership mean? What, indeed does leadership mean? It's an overused word, aligned more with airport paperbacks than the true test of one who can help us find our way in the dark. When I spoke with many of the day's participants, their answers varied, but they came back to the same core qualities: a leader must serve as well as lead. A leader must listen, learn, and be willing to fail. A leader can't go it alone. Sounds trite. But imagine if our current Chief Executive had developed such attributes. Would you ever hire a CEO without knowing how he makes decisions? What if George W. Bush had said to the American people when asked, "well, I prefer to make unilateral decisions based on the advice of a small, inner circle of advisors and I never, ever listen to people outside that group." Next candidate, please.

In a recent Op-ed in the Boston Globe, David Gergen and Andy Zelleke, Directors of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School, which co-sponsored the event, wrote:

"While we may have trouble defining it, leadership is an intangible that most of us intuitively believe matters -- in any organization, large or small, and certainly in the White House. Recognizing this, candidates invariably tout their own exemplary leadership. But voters are typically left with little more than candidates' self-serving, bumper sticker-caliber assertions: "strong leadership," "proven leadership," "new leadership," etc.

Considering the stakes of this election, shouldn't part of the process of choosing the next president be a "job interview" of sorts, designed to shed light on the candidates' leadership capacity? Voters deserve a better understanding of who the candidates really are; their aptitude for building teams and coalitions; their judgment and decision-making style; and the special competencies they bring to getting difficult things done."

Perhaps counter-intuitively, leadership is more "We the people" and less "Hail to the Chief." I'll never forget what Joe Klein said when asked about a key quality a presidential leader should possess: the ability to listen.

If you have your own questions for the candidates or would like to get involved, please visit: howyoulead.org
For video of leaders on presidential leadership click here