Former McCain Adviser: This Election Season's Leaders vs. Loners

Former McCain Adviser: This Election Season's Leaders vs. Loners
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Why you should care

Because it’s not just the American people who are skeptical this election.

Dana W. White was a Hong Kong–based editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal when she got a call from Randy Scheunemann, John McCain’s foreign policy aide at the time. After some hand-wringing, White moved halfway across the globe, boarded the Straight Talk Express 2.0 and wrote speeches for the Republican heir apparent to the presidency.

White turned out to have a front-row seat to one of the most tumultuous elections in history — one where her boss got swept aside in the history-making candidacy of Barack Obama. From that pressure cooker, the forthcoming author of Leader Designed, who runs a Washington, D.C.–based leadership consultancy, has gone on to work for a number of bigwigs, including CEOs (Renault-Nissan Alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn, the only top exec to run two Fortune 500 companies simultaneously), generals (John Allen and Stanley McChrystal) and, of course, politicians — the focus of our edited chat here.

OZY: What did you learn about leadership from working with McCain?

Dana White: The whole campaign had imploded, just overnight, in early 2007, and it was so shocking. We had gone from heroes to zeros. But Sen. McCain was just supremely calm. I remember him talking to reporters and quoting Chairman Mao: “It’s always darkest before it’s completely black.” And he was laughing.

At one point, McCain had a private jet. And an entourage. He had all the accoutrements of a front-runner. And suddenly, he was flying coach and carrying his own bags. What he taught me was that real leadership is understanding you control nothing. He never let the circumstances determine what he was going to do, and his vision for the future.

It’s not that leaders aren’t fearful. They do have fear. It’s just [that] great leaders use their fear to fuel them, not stop them. Winston Churchill was fearful the Nazis would take over. But he used that fear of fascism to fuel and inspire Great Britain, to rally, [as] a battle cry. Neville Chamberlain feared a repeat of World War I, and capitulated.

OZY: You also worked with Sarah Palin. What did you take away from that experience?

D.W.: Being a woman, or a minority, you can sometimes be so struck by the opportunity that you don’t see the bigger picture. You don’t have a bigger vision for yourself. I think men often — and men in politics especially — have an inflated sense of who they could be. Even if you’re the governor of Delaware, a small state, you’re thinking, “I’m ready,” if you get the call. And that means having the team and infrastructure necessary that has your vested interests at heart, that can represent and promote you for your best qualities.

What sets a leader apart is not someone who can tell you about the past or present. A leader tells you about the future.

 

OZY: What have you seen in this year’s presidential race, with current or former candidates?

D.W.: I think what most of the candidates have lacked is a vision. Take Ted Cruz. He’s very good as a tactician and he can talk the issues. But he didn’t articulate enough of a vision. You have to bring people with you. The difference between being a leader and a loner is how many people are behind you. Hillary [Clinton] is similar. They can tell you why things are the way they are. But when you’re talking about a president, it’s more than that. People didn’t call Ronald Reagan a policy wonk. But he believed America was a shining city on a hill.

Look at Bernie Sanders. Even though I don’t agree with his politics, I’m excited about Sanders because he has a vision — one he’s committed to achieving. I think that’s the same you see with Donald Trump. You may disagree with his views, or his communication. But he has a vision of what America should be. What sets a leader apart is not someone who can tell you about the past or present. A leader tells you about the future.

OZY: But is it enough to have a vision if it’s not rooted in fact?

D.W.: I agree both are important. But you see why Trump has been so successful in the media — because the first rule in communication is repeat, repeat, repeat. Make America Great. Make America Great Again. But there are no specifics as to how that will happen, or even a blueprint of a way forward. You have to demonstrate what you think America’s purpose is — where are we going? Are we still a force in the world? Or are we just a bean counter to the world?

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.