If Peter Drucker Rated the 2008 Presidential Election

If Peter Drucker—the inventor of management and the chronicler of great leaders— was still alive, he would not have been surprised by the outcome of the presidential election. He would have known that the Obama strategy and execution of its campaign was superior to Senator McCain’s weeks before Election Day.

Peter Drucker was a shrewd observer of our presidents. Ever since the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, the candidate most able to exude charisma not only won the majority of elections, but also stayed in power the longest.  There was John F. Kennedy, of course, but there was also Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the only two-term presidents to complete both of their terms since Dwight D. Eisenhower (Nixon won but didn’t finish his second term).

However, Drucker felt that charisma was a poor indicator of how a prospective candidate would perform as a president.

Drucker felt that charisma—by itself—was a dangerous leadership quality. “Indeed, charisma becomes the undoing of leaders…leadership is not magnetic personality; it is not ‘making friends and influencing people’—that is salesmanship,” asserted Drucker. “It makes them inflexible, convinced of their own infallibility, unable to change,” he concluded.

His choice of America’s greatest president of the 20th century confirms this: Harry Truman, America’s 33rd president, “the-buck-stops-here” president. Drucker’sadmiration of Truman had nothing to do with charisma. “Truman was as bland as a dead mackerel,” asserted Drucker. However, continued Drucker, “everybody who worked for him worshipped him because he was absolutely trustworthy.”  

The most charismatic leaders of the 20th century, proclaimed Drucker, were Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Mussolini. He called them “mis-leaders!” In addition to Truman, he rated Ronald Reagan as one of the most effective presidents of the last century. “Reagan’s great strength was not charisma, as is commonly thought,” Drucker explained, “but that he knew exactly what he could do and what he could not do.”

                                                    Unique Leadership Qualities

Drucker felt that the qualities that made leaders great were specific to each leader. He regarded Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, and Douglas MacArthur as extraordinary leaders during the second World War.  However, “no two of them shared any ‘personality traits’ or any ‘qualities.'”

Given Drucker’s view on charisma, he would have been cynical of Barack Obama, at least at the outset. It is likely he would have viewed Obama as a JFK-like contender, and despite Kennedy’s iconic popularity, Drucker did not give America’s 36th president high marks: “John F. Kennedy may have been the most charismatic person to occupy the White House. Yet few presidents got as little done.”

But Drucker would have known weeks before the election that Obama would have won. The following factors would have been decisive in Drucker’s mind in evaluating an Obama victory:

Exhibited Consistency and Decisiveness: Drucker felt that consistency was an absolute critical quality of effective leaders. From the first day of the campaign to the last, Obama’s message of change did not waver. He also defined his opponent’s campaign by describing it as a third Bush term, which resonated with most voters since Senator McCain’s voting record was almost identical to President Bush’s. Also, McCain’s message was anything but consistent, shifting from “experience” to “change,” to Obama’s alleged “association with domestic terrorists,” and back again.       

Won Customers and Non-Customers: Drucker urged leaders not to forget non-customers who had the potential to be turned into customers. From the start—in fact, from before the start, from the stirring speech he made at the 2004 Democratic Convention—Obama said “there are no red states, there are no blue states, there is the United States of America.” He reached out to democrats and independents, but also to Republicans as well. He also turned out the most enthusiastic and eager youth vote since JFK in 1960. Those moves allowed him to win over red states that would have been unthinkable only four years ago, such as Indiana, Virginia and Colorado. 

Maintained only One or Two Priorities: Drucker felt that the best leaders maintained no more than two priorities at a time. He said he never met a chief executive who could handle more than that at one time. The Obama campaign stayed focused on a very few, core ideas throughout the campaign. Whenever the topic of the Iraqi War came up, for example, he pointed to the 2002 speech he made denouncing the idea of an offensive, non-premeditated war in the Middle East. Another example: once the financial meltdown hit, his stump speech was all about creating jobs and lowering taxes for the middle class.  

Obama Showed he Could Hire: Drucker felt that the most effective leaders could hire, fire, and promote people. The one hiring decision a presidential candidate makes is the selection of a running mate. Obama’s choice of Joe Biden proved that he was not afraid to be surrounded by strong personalities (which bodes well for his selection of a cabinet). He showed that same important quality when he sat down with economic heavyweights like Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett and Robert Rubin. McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin was an ill-fated choice which became a constant, living example of Senator McCain’s erratic, shoot-from-the-hip, style of leadership.  

 A Superior Organization and Ground Game: In Drucker’s world the most effective leaders are organized, able to prioritize and maintain a high level of morale. Obama’s campaign was nearly flawless in its execution. It held together beautifully to the final day—in marked contrast to McCain’s “circular firing squad” organization which developed in the final weeks of the campaign as it became increasingly clear that their candidate would not win. Also, Obama’s campaign often did unprecedented things. For example, Obama’s “50-state strategy” seemed like a fool’s errand early on, but his organization in red states helped him to win several key states that seemed out of reach only a few months earlier. With his huge money advantage, it is not surprising that Obama had a better get-out-the-vote ground game. Obama’steam used the Rove-Bush playbook to beat McCain and the republicans at their own game. Every aspect of the Obama campaign seemed better executed—steadier, less erratic and more consistent with Drucker’s principles of organization, discipline and accountability.     


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