Managing Mayhem: How America's Next President Can Succeed

To succeed, a strong leader needs to have a very particular set of skills...

Basketball teams of unexceptional gifts don’t even get a ticket to the dance. This year, three of the teams advancing to the NCAA Final Four were No. 1 seeds in their regions. No surprise there.

Talent matters. That holds true in foreign policy, as well as in sports. So there should be no surprise when a mediocre national-security squad suffers a string of foreign-policy setbacks. Top-rank talent may not guarantee any administration an unbroken winning streak in foreign policy, but it sure improves the odds.

So what should the nation’s next president be looking for when assembling his or her national-security team?

Start with Talent, Not Programs

Managing complicated foreign-policy conundrums requires talented people with insight and wisdom. They need to be skilled decision makers and effective leaders. Such people can be found in government. Unfortunately, government rarely empowers the right people at the right time.

If a president seeks to improve foreign-policy outcomes, simply rearranging the rusty chains that bind our national-security apparatus together does little to help. Jimmy Carter was one president who learned this lesson the hard way.

One of Carter’s campaign promises was that he would exercise better oversight of our foreign-policy machinery. In Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House (1980), Betty Glad documents Carter’s belief that the National Security Council Staff was out of control—an all-powerful cabal undercutting leadership from the top, but at the same time bureaucratic, burdensome and slow moving. Once in the Oval Office, he scrapped existing NSC processes, reorganized and downsized.

For all the rearranging, the Carter “system” didn’t produce better policy outcomes. A string of foreign-affairs debacles, like the botched decision to withdraw U.S. forces from South Korea, raised questions about the soundness of the president and his national-security team.

To manage mayhem, the first and most critical task for a new president is to pick the right people for his team.

The qualifications for any job are a mix of skills, knowledge and attributes. Being an effective strategic leader requires three core characteristics: character, competence and critical thinking.

A Core of Character

The most vital attribute for a top national-security leader is character. Strategic leaders are people of character—leaders who do things for the right reasons.

Complicated problems give rise to a variety of probable solutions, each with its own rationale. Leaders of character put priorities in perspective and keep them in order. While they recognize that multiple priorities must be addressed, they make sure that lesser concerns don’t compromise higher values.

The top priority is always what is in the best of the nation—not the administration, any particular agency, political party or other constituency.

As a second priority, leaders must decide what is in the administration’s best interest. After all if a White House isn’t powerful and successful, it is hard to get anything done.

Third, leaders have to account for what is best for their subordinates and their supporting constituents. Staff and constituents are most motivated to help deliver on a president’s agenda when they feel they are valued and what they do is valuable. Accounting for their interests is important.

Leaders often go wrong by sliding into a twisted-pretzel logic that shifts and inverts these priorities. What’s good for the White House is not always what’s best for the country. Similarly, a team member’s drive to succeed in his or her role should not get in the way of other, more important initiatives. It takes the courage of real character to stay on course.

Harry Truman had to make some of the toughest foreign-policy calls of the modern era, decisions that may have short-circuited his chances for another presidential term. After deciding to fight back in Korea, Truman committed a series of blunders and miscalculations—from the decision not to pursue a declaration of war to mismanaging MacArthur. His popularity plummeted.

Despite the calamities, writes historian Robert Ferrell in his biography of the president, “It was impossible to redeem the errors of the past, but it was possible to make the right decisions for the future.” Truman steered a steady course between widening the conflict and abandoning South Korea, leaving the next president a salvageable situation. Throughout his trials, with great personal effort and integrity, Truman managed to keep the needs of the nation first in his priorities. Consequently, he made the most of the final years of his tumultuous presidency.

Wisdom Matters

Leaders need to be competent in their subject area. They don’t need to know everything, but they have to know what they do know, what they don’t and how to cover the gaps by gaining credible, relevant information and assimilating it effectively. The best national-security professionals are leaders who “know themselves,” understand their own strengths and weakness and know how to best fill the gaps.