by Erika Andersen – Jan 10, 2020 (Forbes.com, abridged)
As I’ve been following the Democratic presidential primary over the past year, amidst all the usual punditry and posturing, I’ve noticed one truly unusual thing: the ascendency of Pete Buttigieg.
Here’s a young man in his late 30s who – although unusually accomplished and experienced in a variety of interesting and relevant ways – has never held a national political office and was virtually unknown nationally when he formed his presidential exploratory committee in January of 2019. He had a handful of staffers, a small mailing list, and a few thousand dollars in funding. He is not personally wealthy (in fact, he and his husband have six-figure student debt), and his most significant work experience is the eight years he just completed as mayor of his hometown of South Bend, Indiana.
From those modest beginnings, over the past year he has vaulted past a historically huge field of governors, congresspeople, mayors of much larger cities, and billionaires to take his place as one of four top contenders for the nomination. The other three – Warren, Sanders and Biden – have all spent decades on the national political stage and have very high national name recognition. Two of them have run for President before, and one of them has been Vice President. They started their campaigns with millions of dollars personally and in their campaign coffers, multiple endorsements from key national figures, and mailing lists in the hundreds of thousands.Today In: Leadership
What’s going on here?
I have, as you might suspect, a theory. I wrote a book eight years ago called Leading So People Will Follow, and on the first page, I note that human beings crave, and have always craved, good leaders – that we long for good, worthy, followable leaders in every aspect of our lives. I state my belief that this longing is ancient, primal – a survival mechanism. I believe it is part of what helped us survive in ages past, when choosing the wrong leader could lead to starvation, being overrun by invaders, the erosion of law and civility. I further note that this instinct moves us to look for leaders who we feel will guide us well and safely; who will care more about the success of the enterprise than about their own comfort; who will call out our best and take full advantage of who we are. Finally I reflected that, although the stakes in choosing leaders aren’t as high today is in previous centuries, our wiring hasn’t really changed.
I believe what I said then about our longing for leaders is even more true now. But I was wrong about the stakes – at least in this presidential election: the stakes may actually be higher than they’ve ever been, given the fragile state of geopolitics, our polarization socially and in terms of income and opportunity, and the existential threat of climate change. And our longing for good, true, honorable leaders has become correspondingly stronger; more of an ache, a thirst.
And it seems to me that millions of people are going right to that primal longing, looking past the amount of time spent in Congress or on the planet, and seeing Pete Buttigieg as this kind of leader.
In the Leading book, I further clarified what we look for in the leaders we want to follow, focusing on six timeless attributes that show up in stories told all over the world as being the necessary characteristics of the person who can slay the dragons, defeat the villains and allow us to live happily ever after. We look, and have always looked, for leaders who are Farsighted, Passionate, Courageous, Wise, Generous and Trustworthy. And it seems to me that those characteristics show up again and again in Pete’s life and leadership.
He’s farsighted: he understands the big issues facing us – climate crisis, healthcare, racial and social inequity, immigration, gun violence – and sees the connections among all those things. He has proposed feasible plans to address them in a systemic and inclusive way. His reaction to the killing of Soleimani is a perfect example of Buttigieg calling us to look past a simplistic, short-term response and take into consideration the bigger picture and how that will impact us: “We need a strategy. Not just to deal with individual threats, rivalries and opportunities, but to manage global trends that will define the balance of this half-century in which my generation will live the majority of our lives.”
He’s passionate: He is deeply committed to the things about which he feels strongly – and keeps focusing on them no matter what’s happening around him. I see him reclaiming the core ideas of freedom, democracy, and security from the right, and expressing them – and fighting for them – as the progressive ideas they truly are. He talks about the importance of, for instance, reproductive freedom, and the freedom to start a small business or change jobs that would come from not being worried about losing your healthcare. He talks about improving our democracy by getting rid of the electoral college, moving corporate money out of politics and ending partisan gerrymandering and voter suppression. And he focuses on addressing the critical security concerns of climate and cybersecurity. And not only does Buttigieg speak – clearly and compellingly – about his deep support for these things, he has worked to advance these issues throughout his time as mayor, and even earlier, as a college student and young professional working to get out the vote for progressive candidates who supported these values.
He’s courageous: he gives straightforward answers to difficult questions; he takes responsibility for his mistakes; he has led – and improved – his city calmly through fires, floods, and racial unrest. He is far better than any other politician I’ve observed at admitting when he’s made a mistake and has done something badly – and then working to improve, both himself and the outcome. He has made tough decisions: enlisting in the Navy reserve, and serving in Afghanistan; deciding to come out when he was running for his second term as mayor; leaving the campaign trail and returning home to respond to his community’s anger and grief in the wake of the fatal shooting of Eric Logan, a black man, by a South Bend police officer – doing these things because they seemed to him to be the right thing to do, even though they weren’t easy, personally beneficial, or politically expedient. We want this in our leaders, especially now: we want to know that they will be both brave and honorable in difficult and complicated times.
He’s wise: Pete is an astonishingly good listener (when he speaks, he almost always spends more than half his time on stage inviting and responding to questions) and he sees and shares the patterns in what he hears. For example, his Douglass Plan to address systemic racism, named for 19th century black abolitionist and politician Frederick Douglass, was developed in conversation with experts of color working in many areas of social justice, including the Douglass Foundation itself. Wisdom is the thoughtful application of knowledge, and Buttigieg’s plan builds on the facts of our current reality in the U.S. to outline a coordinated and feasible approach to dismantling the unjust and unequal policies and laws that have made it more difficult for people of color to thrive in housing, education, business, healthcare and criminal justice. When a leader is wise, we know that she or he will think deeply, alone and with others, about critical issues and will work to find solutions that are coherent, achievable and effective. Supporters of Pete’s see this quality in his plans and actions, and it makes them feel their deepest concerns will be dealt with fairly and well.
He’s generous: he is hopeful about our potential to move forward from this divisive time and find our way into a successful future together; he’s compassionate and loving toward even his enemies; he brings out the best in people. Talking to those who have worked most closely with him, both in his campaign and during his time as Mayor, you hear again and again that he is generous with his time and praise, that he freely shares information, power, responsibility and credit. One story I found particularly affecting: A doctor, working the emergency room of a hospital in South Bend when a Somalian mother and her gravely ill son arrived, was frantically trying to find someone to translate Arabic so he could help his patients, when “this young guy in a suit” showed up and began to translate. The mysterious young man spent about an hour helping the doctor and his colleagues understand what was happening and decide with the mother how to proceed, then took the mother and child to their room and spent another hour reassuring and talking with them. He finally returned to shake the doctor’s hand and say goodbye, and the doctor thanked him and asked how long he had been working at the hospital. He casually replied, “I don’t work for the hospital, I’m Mayor Pete.” The doctor found out later that Buttigieg had heard about the situation over the police scanner and simply wanted to help. (Arabic is one of seven languages he speaks.)
And finally, he’s trustworthy. In listening to Buttigieg respond to questions, I’ve noticed that he most often begins his response to even difficult or politically fraught questions with a simple “yes” or “no” before offering more context or explanation. Unlike most politicians, he doesn’t divert to a stock bland answer, prevaricate or evade: he tells the truth as he sees it. Perhaps even more important, he does what he says he’s going to do. He became Mayor of South Bend largely on the strength of his promise of revitalization; South Bend had just been listed by Newsweek as one of America’s “dying cities.” Eight years later, his promise of revitalization is being fulfilled in a variety of ways: unemployment is down dramatically, and the population is rising for the first time in decades. The city has garnered hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment – industrial, commercial, and residential. Over a thousand vacant, unlivable homes have been demolished or repaired, and a community development organization started to help continue the process of supporting low-income people to repair their homes. Even the lone Republican member of the South Bend City Council says, “I think if you ask not just me, but a lot of Republicans in South Bend, they’d have to admit that Pete has done a good job in a lot of ways. He’s done a great job of attracting new and exciting economic development opportunities. He’s got an eye for attracting young, innovative talent to the city and really breathing new life into an administration that could have been described before as old and maybe not so forward-thinking.” Especially in times of change and challenge, we want leaders who will tell us the truth and deliver on their promises.
In November of this year, we’ll find out which candidate Americans will select to lead us at this critical time. Given what I’m seeing now, I believe it may be that the more voters get to know about Pete Buttigieg, the more they will see in him these qualities of farsightedness, passion, courage, wisdom, generosity and trustworthiness. And our longing for that kind of leadership could send him to the White House, to guide Americans into a new and more hopeful and equitable chapter in our nation’s history.