One of the intriguing features of the coronavirus pandemic is how sharply it has illuminated the importance of effective political leadership. Wherever we stand on the political spectrum, we’re looking to elected officials to help steer us through this crisis.
While I don’t want to talk about specific politicians, a lifetime in politics has given me a sense of what makes a good one – as a policy maker, that is, rather than a candidate.
For starters, I think the most successful politicians have integrity. When you’re interacting with many others to deal with complex and difficult public policy issues, it’s important that you can trust someone’s word. Most of the politicians I’ve met stay true to what they tell you.
For the same reason, they tend to be skillful at working with all sorts of people. Sizing others up is vital. So is not rushing to make quick judgments, but instead letting others show through their actions what they can accomplish.
The best politicians I’ve met – Bill Clinton comes to mind – also have a way of charming people who don’t agree with them. I was in a room once with Clinton and a group of people whom he knew disliked him. He was affable, engaging, listened carefully to what they had to say; you would never have guessed he had any idea what they thought of him.
I’ve been impressed over the years by the energy and drive to get things done that good politicians bring to their work. Yet accomplished politicians also know how to rein in their enthusiasm and zeal. They practice patience and perseverance and prepare for the long haul, because they understand that controversial things don’t get easily done in our system. They believe that facts matter, because they’re the starting point for any productive negotiation.
Good politicians are able to put aside partisan differences when necessary and work for the common good. They don’t just want to serve their country and communities, they also know how to check their egos at the door and act with apparent humility – even when, as is often the case, their egos are quite healthy.
No politician combines all these traits. But it can’t hurt to keep the ideal in front of us and know what the politicians we elect should strive to be.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.