10/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Selecting Leaders: Did We Strike Gold with Obama-Biden?

Selecting leaders is one very big aspect of the survival of the species. Biologists never tire of studying the methods employed by various species in selecting leaders. One tried and true method is for alpha males to beat each other up. Group leadership on the other hand employs subtle signals that cause all members to act as one -- say schools of fish, or flocks of birds.

Humans, ever strutting their rational superiority over other species, engage in selection rituals of their own design. These range from military coups to tribal warfare, to neighbors slaughtering neighbors over who exerts leadership. But the most rationally advanced selection processes are those employed by democracies. These processes use rules and codes purportedly designed to find the best person among all of the citizens to lead the country into the future.

How well has this superior system worked for democracies? Allowing for varying results from nation to nation given differences in election processes, it can still generally be said that only checks and balances, impeachment clauses, and term limits have saved these democratic systems from total disasters. They are far from perfect.

Occasionally a superior result allows us to claim rational superiority over lower species: a Lincoln surfaces to bind the nation together and grant Blacks freedom from slavery. Nelson Mandela rises from jail to liberate South Africa from apartheid. A written-off Winston Churchill turns out to be the right person at the right time to stem Hitler's ambitions. Mohandas Gandhi fasts, walks 240 miles and protests until the British are compelled to relinquish control of India. Such leaders give us hope we can do the right thing when we put cynicism, fear, and narrow self-interests aside. Or perhaps it is just luck.

The selection process has grown much more complex and risky with the rise of billion dollar campaigns deployed with TV, radio, and Web power. Leaders can be packaged overnight and sold or destroyed by media hype and attacks. One person-one vote gives way to one person with a big wallet and lots of votes. For example big Texas wallets launched a media blitz called Swift Boat that destroyed John Kerry's 2004 bid for the Presidency.

So in the end the smug superiority of the rational system too often gives way to head butting by alpha males or females. Subtle and not so subtle signals about racism, homosexuality, and women's right to choose can move whole flocks of true believers regardless of the actual quality of the leadership candidates. Fears, money, and media power scour out most of the rational aspects of the selection system.

We must shed our arrogance, admit our system failures, and design a much better method for selecting leaders. We can't look at the other institutions for easy answers. Corporations and education are not faring much better in finding great sustainable leadership. The best models tend to look at whole teams, not just the heroic figure. To survive as a species we need a wholly new system for selecting leaders. The talent resides amongst us, but we are not getting the best and brightest through the system.

John Gardner, a great leader and author of Excellence was fond of asking why a tattered group of 13 colonies could select world class leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, Hamilton and more while a nation of 50 states and more than 300 million people can't find one to equal them. (One hint: none of those exemplary leaders were professional politicians.) With our current system we can only hope for luck or divine intervention to find a vein of gold. It appears that the Obama-Biden team may be that lucky strike -- in spite of the selection system needing an overhaul.