05/15/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

How Do You Hire a Good President?

In business, smart hiring managers know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Hypothetical questions are useless in the selection process -- the only thing a hypothetical question will tell you is how good the job applicant is at making up hypothetical answers. If you want to find out how a candidate will perform in the future, ask him specific, behavioral questions about his past.

In selecting the right person for the job, you want to look at two things -- observable behavior and measurable results. Hiring should never be done on the basis of a "gut feeling" or a candidate's clichés, platitudes, and empty rhetoric: "I'll restore America's greatness" or "Choose me and I'll bring back the American Dream." You should evaluate a candidate by assessing his actual behaviors and verifiable results. Ask for specifics: "Tell me about your track record in cutting costs," or "Tell me about a time when you had to conduct a tough negotiation. How did you handle it?" If you were selecting a CEO to run your business, you would insist on specific answers to your questions; when you're selecting a CEO to run your country, you should ask tough questions and insist on concrete answers.

Smart hiring managers also consider a job applicant's potential for future growth, as well as his past experience. After all, jobs are not static -- they change over time -- and you want to be sure you hire a guy who can grow with the job, rise to the occasion when new challenges present themselves, and be able to handle the unpredictable and unforeseen. One thing we can be sure of -- both in business and in politics -- is that the future doesn't look anything like the past!

So, how do you gauge a job applicant's future potential? Look to the past: A candidate's past performance is a reliable indicator of his ability to meet future challenges. Ask questions like: "Tell me about a time when you were confronted with a problem that you knew nothing about. What did you do?" Or, "Tell me about a time when you felt you took on a new job that had a steep learning curve. How did you handle it?" Or, "Have you ever found yourself facing a situation in which you were in over your head? What did you do?" Nobody has any experience being president until they actually are president, so asking behavioral questions enables you to assess how well your man will learn on the job -- by determining how well he learned on the job in the past.

In hiring a president, as in hiring any executive, you start by being clear about what the job entails, beginning with superb interpersonal skills. In business, 80 percent of those who fail on the job fail due to poor interpersonal skills -- not poor technical skills. Superb interpersonal skills are even more important in selecting a president. He should be able to communicate effectively, both verbally and non-verbally. He must be sensitive to cultural differences and able to adjust his communication accordingly; he should demonstrate that he understands the nuances of posture and body language, eye contact, bowing, shaking hands, and all aspects of negotiating the subtleties of personal space. He must demonstrate a high level of emotional intelligence in dealing with a wide variety of people.

What other skills and behaviors are important? A skillful president should have the ability to formulate and articulate a clear vision, in concert with the desires and needs of those he leads. He must enroll people in that vision and build consensus among his followers.

An effective president should have excellent financial skills and a deep understanding of economics -- for the budget is his primary tool for implementing national priorities. He should be fiscally responsible -- knowing when and where to spend as well as when and where to cut. It helps if he has a proven track record of financial accomplishments benefiting others -- not just enriching himself.

A president who is well-equipped to lead us into the future is technologically savvy. An effective president needs to understand that we live in a wired world in which our country's future is inextricably intertwined with technological advancement. Our president should have a thorough understanding of how technology affects national security, business productivity, medical research and development, energy, the environment, and more.

The president you hire should be able to disagree with others without demonizing them; this is true for his relationships with other American political leaders as well as international leaders. A skillful president needs to be able to find common ground among his diverse constituencies and build bridges of understanding among them. A strong, effective president is not threatened by those who disagree with him, or even attack him -- he listens, takes their perspectives into account, and looks for creative ways to work with political opponents. He believes that governing is a matter of "principles over personalities," so he focuses on substance, not style, in his dealing with others.

A president with integrity does not try to be all things to all people ; he is a man of principle who accepts that there will always be people who don't like him and/or don't agree with him. A wise president is willing to change his position as he gathers new information or he begins to see things from a new perspective -- as our social fabric is flexible, changing and evolving over time. A president with integrity may change his perspective, but he never panders. He knows the difference between being open-minded and being inauthentic.

And most importantly, an effective president must earn the TRUST of those he would lead. Trust isn't bestowed with the office; it must be earned over time. And TRUST has two components: COMPETENCE and CHARACTER. With one of today's candidates, we see that it's possible to trust a man's Competence (his business acumen, his governing experience, his financial skills, and his personal success in accumulating wealth), while not trusting his Character (his bullying and hazing gay students in college, refusing to reveal his tax returns, hiding money in offshore shelters, and taking credit for saving the Big Three automakers). He may be Competent, but have poor Character. When a candidate isn't well-liked by members of his own party, that tells us he has a Character problem (not to mention a significant lack of interpersonal skills). In hiring a president, you want both Competence and Character -- as well as great people skills.

Bottom line: In hiring the next President of the United States, take the measure of the man. Is he well-liked? Is he well-respected? Does he have the requisite skills? Does he have the emotional maturity to handle criticism and disagreement? Is he smart? Is he well-read? Can he see the big picture as well as focus on important details? Does he understand military and diplomatic strategy? Can he command the respect of the armed forces and diplomatic corps? Does he show respect for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other historical documents that are the foundation of government? Does he understand the complexity of today's world? Does he surround himself with smart, talented, skillful people?

Does the man you want to hire as president have a big heart as well as a big brain? Is he compassionate and caring? Does he demonstrate empathy for Everyman and Everywoman? Does he work well under pressure? Can he control his emotions, especially in a crisis? Is he willing to take calculated risks, putting his career on the line, when he knows it's the right thing to do? Can he admit mistakes and rebound from them? Does he have a sense of humor to help him deal with the stresses and strains of the job? Can he do the right thing even when he knows his decision may be unpopular? Above all, is he a man you can trust -- in terms of both competence and character? When hiring a president, don't assess just what a man does; assess who he is.

BJ Gallagher is a management consultant, speaker, and coauthor of "YES Lives in the Land of NO: A Tale of Triumph Over Negativity" (Berrett-Koehler).