Leadership lessons from Rick Santorum

Republican presidential hopeful and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum addresses a crowd at the Stoney Creek Inn, Jan. 3, 2012 in Johnston, Iowa. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

COMMENTARY We all love a come from behind victory, especially when the underdog wins. When Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, it could have been over for the young entrepreneur. But he never gave up and eventually came back to the company he founded, saved it from bankruptcy, and turned it around into the most valuable company in America.

Years ago I was discussing the relative attributes of a CEO with a board member and he said something that both surprised and stuck with me : "The guy's got incredible stick-with-it-ness. He never gives up." You know, he was right. Today, I recognize tenacity, perseverance, stick-with-it-ness, if you will, as some of the most underrated leadership characteristics.

Rick Santorum seems to have that in spades. Just a couple of weeks ago, he was polling in the single digits. In the Republican debates, he had to remind moderators that he was even there. I don't think he's going to have that problem anymore. As of Tuesday's Iowa Caucus, the former senator from Pennsylvania is officially on center stage.

The fact that he lost by eight votes doesn't even register. His dramatic performance in the caucus shows that people are, perhaps for the first time, seeing a true leader emerge from the pack. His message on economic reform and how to boost the economy and put Americans back to work is resonating. He comes across as genuine when he speaks. And his timing couldn't be better.

The real question is, does he have what it takes to go the distance and win win the Republication nomination? To me, it comes down to five leadership factors:

He's got a great message that's resonating with people. Every great leader has a platform and a message that promises to solve his constituent's biggest problem. In this case, that's all about the economy, and Santorum's call to "work together to get America back to work" message is really resonating with folks. Fiscally, he's got a solid plan to cut the federal deficit by $5 trillion, overhaul the tax code to two levels with limited deductions, cut corporate taxes in half to make American companies more competitive and repatriate offshore capital, and additional tax incentives to bring manufacturing jobs back to America and boost the economy.

He's compassionate and empathetic. At his core, Santorum is as socially conservative as they come. He's strongly pro-life, against same-sex marriage, and a proponent of intelligent design, and he's sort of in-your-face about it, which rubs some people the wrong way. Nevertheless, he's got an enormous heart and an impressive track record of legislation to help people with AIDS, fight tuberculosis, help vulnerable children in developing nations, combat genocide in Sudan, and welfare reform. That prompted U2's Bono to say, "I would suggest that Rick Santorum has a kind of Tourette's disease; he will always say the most unpopular thing. But on our issues, he has been a defender of the most vulnerable."

He's genuine and consistent. If you heard his speech Tuesday night, you heard the voice and feelings of a genuine leader. He spoke with emotion and humility about his belief and value system, his family's blue-collar immigrant heritage, what it will take to kick-start the economy and get Americans back to work, and his unshakeable faith in America and the freedom it stands for. As Rush Limbaugh said recently, "I know that if Rick Santorum were elected president, I wouldn't have one doubt any day what he would be fighting for, not one. And it would be great if he could get there."

His timing is perfect. All great leaders find a big problem to solve. In this case, it's the economy, but just about the only consistent thing about the Republican race is that Romney can't seem to get above 25% in the polls, meaning three quarters of Republicans are looking for an alternative. He looks and acts presidential, he's got more money than God, and he's got the political and fiscal chops for the job, but most Republicans just don't trust Romney or think he's genuine. That's why they keep putting up challengers who peak and then fizzle. For Santorum, timing may be everything -- he's peaking at the right time.

Now, can he go the distance? Successful executives know that all the positive attributes in the world are meaningless if they don't cross the finish line a winner. In the business world, coming in second doesn't count for much. One of the most important jobs of any CEO is to ensure there's enough capital to fund operations. It's no different in the political arena. It's said that presidential candidates don't drop out, they just run out of money. Santorum's problem is that the field is split and so is the funding, which works to Romney's benefit. At this point, a lot depends on how fast other candidates drop out and if Santorum can capitalize on his new-found momentum and put a nationwide campaign together. Time will tell. 

Today, every American is feeling the pain of our sluggish economy, record debt, and high unemployment. The number one issue is the economy. If you ask me, what America needs right now is a leader who can bring people together and galvanize the nation to return to prosperity. Among the field of Republican hopefuls, Santorum is certainly a leader to be reckoned with.  

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