The Paradox of Learning and Leadership – A Comment on Brian Leiter’s Question

On New Hampshire voting day, Brian Leiter has asked what law professors make of the Democratic nomination process. I started to comment over there and realized it was turning into an entire blog post.

Disclosure: I just came back from the Obama office in Somerville, MA where I was making phone calls to undecided voters in New Hampshire. I have not done this in many years (I think the last time was when Morris Udall was running in a Michigan presidential primary, so that should date it) and I realized I hated making phone calls (i.e. being phone SPAM) now as much as I hated it then. Bleccch!

Here’s my take. I’ve never been in government, but I’ve been at or near the top in large organizations in times of stress when huge decisions (although not of life) have to be made, usually under pressure of time, with unclear impact of the alternative choices, with multiple inputs and viewpoints, and highly imperfect information. Indeed, to use a metaphor, pulling the trigger and not quite knowing where the bullet will ricochet is one of the hardest things for a leader to do. Ultimately, I think, apart from the issues, our decision has a lot to do with how much we trust the leader at that moment of decision. Some people can’t decide, some people don’t want to decide, some people just consistently make bad decisions, and some people make bad judgments (to cite a lawyer’s example, I’ve written about Bernard Nussbaum’s flawed advice to the Clintons – to stonewall the discovery of documents in Travelgate as though it were hardball litigation and not a political and PR issue).

The problem with arms’-length assessment is that great leadership walks a fine line between the ability to learn and the ability to decide. President Bush (“I am the decider”) may well exhibit the latter trait; nobody will ever confuse him with a learner. Brian Leiter suggests that some of the Obama surge may be relief that there is a viable candidate other than Hillary Clinton, and there may be something to that. Frankly, my worry about her is that she may be a better learner than Bush, and probably would be a good decider, but she’s not that good a learner. I have now read two-thirds of Obama’s The Audacity of Hope and, while his mettle as a decider is wholly untested, it’s not a close question whether he’s the best learner of the bunch. By that I mean he demonstrates a willingness to understand, even if he does not ultimately buy, the positions of his opponents. And, I think, that is what is coming across now as the wave of change. It’s a pipe dream to think anybody is going to “unify” the country – that’s a slogan. But I think he does offer a hope of respectful discourse by doing what a leader ought to do, which is to engage in respectful discourse. And that only comes naturally if you are a learner to start.

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