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Beyond the debates, the real issue is leadership

On balance, the Bush-Dukakis debate was a disappointment. Why? The two men proved knowledgeable about a range of issues, expressed themselves well, made no great blunders, looked presidential, and had moments of wit and fervor. And that's what it takes to get elected. But what does it take to govern?

On that very point, the debate exposed one of the saddest flaws in the American electoral system. It showed, once again, that the qualities needed to win bear little relation to the qualities needed to lead.

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If you doubt that, get out your videotape of the debate. Then compare what you see with a list of leadership traits on which, I suspect, most of us could agree:

Vision and long-term thinking. Real leaders see beyond the near-term, bottom-line horizon. They live in constant relation to the future. Finding significance in details others ignore, spotting anomalies in the routine, they use their insight to locate far-reaching trends and assess dimly perceived probabilities.

Relation of part to whole. Leaders, aware of context, search out the bigger picture. Never mired in specialties, they are generalists who seek lateral connections among ideas, institutions, and individuals.

Building consensus. Leaders aim at forward movement, which implies unity of action. So they seek to bring together the different constituencies they serve by creating a sense of trust, intercommunication, and reliability.

Careful listening. Good leaders are good listeners, a quality requiring humility, stillness, and poise. Always seeking to learn, they never assume that their present knowledge is complete or their status above correction.

Sound judgment of character. Leaders can't do everything, and so must delegate. That means they must select able lieutenants, none of whom will be perfect for every task, but each of whom will bring outstanding strengths. So leaders must be good at casting, filling each role with the right choice.

Awareness of nuance. Mature leaders don't reduce issues to black-and-white simplicity. Nearly everything is a bit gray around the edges: Information is almost always incomplete, and reliable generalities are rare, indeed.

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Empowering others. Real leaders are always teachers, showing others how to take responsibilities and achieve their own successes. Less interested in their own glory than in the light they reflect onto others, they inspire autonomy, not dependence.

So what about the debate? Did it have a sense of long-range vision, or did it harp on the recent past, trading accusations of a card-carrying liberalism or an Iran-contra taint? Did a big picture emerge from bickering over the pledge of allegiance? Can you build consensus by savaging those with whom you disagree? Do careful listeners ignore moderators who remind them that their time is up? Does a sound judge of character dismiss out of hand the years of experience that brought the opponent to the top of his party? Does mature, nuanced thinking content itself with one-liners about the clarity of Boston Harbor or the branding of women seeking abortion as criminals? Does an embarrassing drumbeat of the first-person pronoun - I, I, me, me - encourage independence among followers?

No in every case.

Yet it made good television: Sparks flew, supporters clapped and cheered, personalities flared, egos asserted themselves. What did it add up to? A couple of grown men of exceptional talent, stamina, and experience behaving toward each other as they would never behave - could never afford to behave - if they actually held positions of leadership in the real world.

And that will be the acid test. The real world awaits one of these candidates in a few short months. It's a demanding place, where problems are complex, global, creeping, and unresponsive to the quick fix. Its ethics is unraveling. Its population is bursting. Its environment is caving in. Its children are crying out for education. Its weaponry is outrunning both budgets and common sense. And the world is pleading for leadership from the nation that still stands as the beacon of the free world.

What will it get: a demagogue who knows how to get elected, or a statesman who shows at every opportunity that he knows how to lead?

A Monday column

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