McCain, Clinton, Obama: Who is the Best Leader-Manager?

Last Updated Apr 30, 2008 8:21 AM EDT

Great leaders must also be great managers -- vision doesn't implement itself.

Do the three presidential candidates have what it takes to translate their demonstrated leadership skills into management acuity? The jury is still out on each of them, says Joseph Nye Jr. in a recent op-ed. Nye is a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and author of the new book The Powers to Lead.

Nye says that leaders need to master the following in order to become effective "leader-managers":

  • Information Management "Leaders need enough managerial skill to assure that systems are in place to provide the information required for good decisions as well as effective implementation."
  • Organizational Skill "Organizational skill is the ability to manage the structures, information flows, and reward systems of an institution or group. Leaders directly manage those who report to them, and they manage indirectly by establishing and maintaining systems for their institutions. This includes the encouragement of leadership at lower levels in their organizations."
  • Encourage Multiple Views "Good leaders must manage their inner circle of advisers to ensure an accurate flow of information and influence. They must avoid the 'emperor's trap' of hearing only about the beauty of their new clothes."
Good management in this context isn't about organizational tidiness and punctuality. It's about ensuring the right information is flowing to the right people. "Effectiveness is more important than efficiency," he says.

Presidential Power Nye looks at the practices of presidents current andMcCain, Clinton, O'Bama: Who is the Best Manager-Leader? past to determine where each stood on the leader-manager equation. Franklin Roosevelt ran an inefficient, overlapping organization that nevertheless produced great information. Current president Bush, according to Nye, was weak on managing his inner group of advisers, which resulted in a truncated flow of information.

Read Nye's column for a review of how other presidents stood as leader-managers. As to the current crop of candidates:

"John McCain has military experience, but as an aviator rather than a commander. Hillary Clinton has experience living close to decision-making in the White House, but not as the decision-maker. Barack Obama has experience living overseas and working as a community organizer in Chicago, but not in the executive branch."

What do you think? We all evaluate candidates on their leadership qualities: honesty, integrity, intelligence. Should we spend just as much time judging them on their managerial qualities? Is John McCain an effective information manager? Does Hillary Clinton know how to delegate decision making? Can Barack Obama master the workings of a complex and entrenched bureaucracy?

(Image by pingnews, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.