On what grounds might we feel confident we’ve chosen a good leader? This question has preoccupied political theorists for centuries. It is one of many questions that now preoccupies voters in Virginia.

Adam Smith argued we should accept leaders drawn from the upper ranks of society. Since we cannot observe what’s in another’s mind, this seemed to him to ensure leaders were, for the most part, respected by the lower ranks. Respect, along with the desire to lead admirably, would keep leaders honest and public spirited.

Smith didn’t stop there. He held that leaders would find ways to secure a more equitable society, and thus, they would narrow the social and economic distance between ranks.

But do our leaders typically work for the public good? All too often it seems leaders seek their own gains and goals (economists call these private goals). When public ends come to the forefront, leaders lock against each other and are unable to agree. The recent partial government shutdown provides a case in point.

Do we know more today than Smith did about selecting the best political leaders? As we size up recent events in Virginia and look toward future elections, it is vitally important to investigate how best to choose leaders, no matter the political party. Our political system seems to have evolved to a point where we know so very much and yet so very little about candidates.

Potential leaders come under intense scrutiny in our current system of primaries. Past scandals are often unearthed. Yet, as we have just seen, they may not come to light in a timely way.

Add to this that we learn little about potential leaders from staged debates. The current system in national politics––holding debates with timed answers and staged replies––conveys little information about candidates, how they would actually govern, what keeps them awake at night, and so on. Sound bites convey the minimum, and social media tweets may have exacerbated the sound-bite problem. Candidates create and rehearse messages with a hope of not antagonizing potential voters.

Perhaps voters should vote based on experience, or some other attribute, instead of sound bites. Sometimes, however, experience signifies entrenchment, and voters are inclined to discount this as a signal of leadership potential. Still, voters may want to tally up and evaluate candidates’ different types of experience.

Is there anything else that will help us assess potential for political leadership? Perhaps personal characteristics may indicate how the candidate will lead. Evidence that candidates have led honestly, with vision and persistence, might prove more worthwhile than debate sound bites supplied in staged conditions.

As the situation unfolds in Virginia, we are reminded that choosing good leaders is important and by no means simple. Attention must be paid.

Choosing leaders

Sandra J. Peart

Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.

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