Endless effort and spin has gone into trying to explain why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 (without ever considering that her own baggage, views and personality had anything to do with it). As I tried to explain long before the election in my book, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” the elites of politics, academia and the media had sealed themselves into such an airtight echo chamber, they had no idea what the mysterious natives of that vast “flyover country” that they looked down on, literally and figuratively, were thinking.
What they were thinking was that they were fed up to the gills with a double standard that gave the politically-connected a pass for things that would land them under the jail. There were sick of being ignored and insulted for voicing legitimate complaints about how their lives were being adversely affected by leftist policies, disregard for the Constitution and selective enforcement of laws. They were tired of being called racist or xenophobic if they thought the welfare of suffering Americans, such as homeless veterans or people put out of work by illegal immigrant labor, should take priority over solving the problems of everyone else in the world.
And on a visceral level, they were tired of the grating combination of ignorance and arrogance (a trait we’ve seen turned up to 11 since the 2018 elections). It’s that condescending attitude of elitists who are convinced they are the smartest people in the room – so smart, in fact, that their ideas are the only ones that should be allowed to be expressed -- even though the results of their ideas throughout history prove that they don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about. They think they know how to run the entire planet, but they have fewer practical skills than the average apprentice plumber.
During the Obama years, a lot of young savants with massive egos sailed triumphantly into Washington only to go slinking back to academia after seeing their precious theories shatter on the rocks of reality. So what can all those Ivy League hothouse flowers learn about problem-solving from a lowly former Arkansas governor and business owner?
Well, the most important tip I could offer is this: Very big problems are usually not solved with very big solutions. A 2000-page bill or a massive ten-year “plan” like the Green New Deal only creates a whole new set of problems. If you want to turn a problem into a catastrophe, the recipe is simple: just add lots and lots of federal bureaucrats and taxpayer money.
When you have a big problem, Step #1 is to break it down into little problems. Then put someone in charge of each problem who actually knows how to solve it. It takes an experienced, executive decision-maker just to decide which decisions to make and which ones can be safely left to someone else. (This is something that doesn’t require political experience; anyone who’s ever run a successful business knows it instinctively.)
Next comes the hardest part: prioritizing. We’ve all seen executives who are constantly bustling and shouting. They look busy – some people are even impressed by their constant bustling -- but they never really get anything done. That’s because they’re trying to do everything at once, instead of focusing on issues in their order of importance.
I’ll let you in on another secret: the importance of an issue is not determined by how important the people closest to it think it is. You might have to disappoint or even anger people by telling them their pet issue isn’t your top priority. Sorry, that’s part of the job.
I once had a professor of religion who said one of the wisest things I ever heard about management: “Don’t use all your water to put out too small a fire.” If you use up all your resources and credibility overreacting to a small crisis, then what do you do when a big crisis comes along and your fire extinguisher is empty? (We’re seeing this a lot in the media these days, when every little controversy becomes a hair-on-fire CRISIS, then gets dropped the second the next one comes along. All this has accomplished is to erode their own credibility.)
Another essential skill is choosing the right employees. If you have important jobs to fill, find people who’ve mastered every aspect of their current job and are happy there, but ready to move up. Someone who wants a promotion because he’s not comfortable where he is won’t be any more comfortable higher up.
You also don’t need an idealistic dreamer who leaps in from academia to reinvent the wheel. Advanced degrees and high grades in school are admirable, but often, real world experience and common sense are more valuable. When you need to put out a fire, you call a firefighter, not a Ph.D. in combustion theory. And as we’ve also learned only too well from the FBI and the Mueller team, you don’t put people in charge who let partisan zeal prejudice the way they do their jobs or deal with the public.
That’s what you should learn on day one of “Leadership 101.” So how come so many of our leaders and the people vying to be our next Chief Executive still haven’t learned it?