The seriousness of today’s presidential challenges can only be compared with those when Abraham Lincoln confronted the Civil War and the end of slavery, or Franklin Roosevelt led the nation through World War II.
With Joe Biden elected as the next President, he will face the monumental task of taming the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with its unprecedented economic consequences, uniting a divided nation with mounting racial tensions, and restoring America’s credible global role amid the challenges of climate change, health and social inequality, and a shift of global power from West to East.
Unfortunately, history doesn’t award Biden much chance of success.
In his wonderful book Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, Gautam Mukunda of the Harvard Kennedy School shows how “filtered” American Presidents (insiders well known to voters before being elected) very rarely achieve significant change or exceptional performance. Following Mukunda’s theory, President-elect Biden (a consecrated insider with almost 50 years in politics) would be doomed to join the list of “dispensable” chiefs, with an expected mediocre performance and thus highly unlikely to successfully bring America back into its glorious past.
But it doesn’t need to be like this.
The narrow but only path to a successful Biden presidency will require him to recreate Lincoln’s famed team of rivals, and urgently assemble a truly exceptional, diverse and inclusive presidential team.
How should Biden confront the daunting task of making more than 4,000 presidential appointments—of which 1,000 require Senate confirmation—with just a couple of months before inauguration?
First, he should remember that for building lasting greatness, it’s not the how or the what but the who (also the title of my 2014 book). Great journeys never start with brilliant strategies and policies carefully designed, but with a visionary leader who puts together an extraordinary team that will help the leader come up with the right strategies and policies for the right times, properly adjust them as circumstances change, and, most of all, successfully implement them.
Second, Biden must carefully assess the candidates’ potential. Given today’s extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (also known as VUCA), jobs are changing so rapidly that past experience becomes quickly irrelevant and we can’t predict the skills required to succeed even a few years out. The transition team will therefore need to identify those future public leaders with a strong ability to grow and adapt to fundamentally unexpected and complex responsibilities.
Biden should check their capacity to grow into that job by looking for four traits: curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. Is the candidate someone who seeks new experiences, ideas, and knowledge; solicits feedback; and stays open to learning and change? Are they able to gather and make sense of new information and use their insights to shift legacy views? Do they connect on an emotional level with others, demonstrate empathy, communicate a persuasive vision, and inspire commitment to the broader organization? Are they someone with the strength to persist in the face of difficulties and to bounce back from major setbacks?
Third, the President-elect should check the candidates’ levels of emotional and social intelligence. Often in government, candidates get too much credit for their academic backgrounds and years of specific experience; in reality, soft competencies distinguish exceptional leaders from average ones. The diffuse power structures of the public sector demand a superb mix of persuasion, influence, political currency, and collaborative ability. To properly assess candidates’ emotional and social intelligence, Biden should check their references with former peers.
Finally, Biden should appoint effective teams at all levels of his administration. But how will he actually get a team of stars to work well together? All truly effective teams shine in six fundamental areas: balance, alignment, energy, openness, efficiency and resilience. Some of these are more crucial than others. Given the need to unite Americans following one of the most divisive periods in the country’s modern history, the next presidential team should prioritize balance, openness, and alignment, listening to and bringing to the table very different perspectives.
The best practices for recruitment in the business world have already been properly documented. Putting together a stellar presidential team is conceptually simple, but difficult from an emotional standpoint. It will demand from Biden a paradoxical blend of deep humility (to look for, attract, and listen to the best people wherever they may come from) and fierce commitment to his gigantic mission. But it is precisely such a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will that makes exceptional leaders truly great.
Claudio Fernández-Aráoz is an executive fellow at Harvard Business School and the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who. For more than three decades, he worked at the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder, where he was a partner and member of its executive committee.