Election Postmortem – The Leadership System

By Barbara Kellerman

Impossible to make much sense of what happened – President-elect Donald Trump – so soon after the fact. But when the history of this moment is written, it will have to presume a systemic perspective. It will have to account not only for leaders, but also for followers, and for contexts.

This is a brief first pass.



• Donald Trump. Sui generis. The American body politic has never seen anyone like him: a businessman and barker with zero political experience who, by dint of his outlandish, outrageous, and ferocious attacks on the status quo, was ultimately catapulted to the top of the greasy pole.

• Hillary Clinton. Sui generis – but only in so far as she was a woman playing in what up to now has been a man’s game. In every other way she was the opposite of the new and different. In fact, she was excessively familiar: wife of a husband who, for all his gifts, had years ago tarnished the nation’s highest office. And a longtime political player in her own right who, for all her gifts, had been tainted with charges of deception and corruption.

• Barack Obama. Preternaturally popular among the American people in the waning days of his presidency. Nevertheless, a black man in a sea of angry white voters – who, to boot, was responsible for the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare”, which just weeks before the election jacked up premiums to the point where “affordable care” was anything but.

• Mike Pence. A superior political cipher. He looked the part. Sounded the part. And played the part – perfectly. Subsuming his own political persona to Donald Trump’s, Pence spent the last several months proving he was to the manor born – the vice president’s manor. He was loyal to fault, bereft of his own persona, and when called upon to perform did so by being beautifully bland, not a single gray hair on his carefully coiffed head ever out of place.

• Tim Kaine. The invisible man. Chosen by Hillary Clinton for a range of traits and characteristics, including being a Catholic, a pragmatist, and a speaker of Spanish. But, Kaine first disappointed, then disappeared. Never touted to full effect, once he lost the vice presidential debate to his Republican counterpart, he was hidden behind a scrim

• Paul Ryan. A grievous disappointment to those who once thought that he might be an exception to the general rule – that he might have the courage of his convictions. Clearly distrustful of his party’s nominee, possibly even repelled by him, Ryan chose to remain mute on the man, silent to a fault, straddling the wavering line between retaining a modicum of personal political independence and party loyalty.

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About the Author
kellerman-webBarbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She was the Founding Executive Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, and she has held professorships at Fordham, Tufts, Fairleigh Dickinson, George Washington, Uppsala, and Dartmouth.



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