What makes a successful politician?

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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. One of the ironies of our system is that the skills and attributes that put someone in office are usually not the skills needed for success once they’re there. Yet as a nation we depend on politicians’ abilities in office to move us forward.

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 hugely important that you can trust someone’s word. Most of the politicians I’ve met stay true to what they tell you. They recognize the need to work with others and know that trust matters.

For the same reason, they tend to be skillful at working with all sorts of people. Sizing others up accurately — not just whether they’re trustworthy, but the skills and strengths they might bring to a given policy or organizing effort — is vital. So is not rushing to make quick judgments, but instead letting others show through their actions what they can accomplish. Many good politicians are quite tolerant — they know people make mistakes or errors of judgment, and that nobody has a monopoly on the truth or performs flawlessly.

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. Walking out with them afterward, I asked what they thought. They all responded, “I still have disagreements with him, but what a nice fellow!”

I’ve been impressed over the years by the energy and drive to get things done that good politicians bring to their work. When I talk with people who want to get into politics, I usually open the conversation with two questions: What’s your energy level? And what’s your spouse or partner think about it? Both are critically important, because as all-consuming as a campaign might be, serving in office is even more so, especially if you’re a politician who wants to accomplish change. An unsupportive spouse or partner spells problems down the road.

At the same time, accomplished politicians 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. And they’re very good at managing their time efficiently.

Good politicians are able to put aside partisan differences when necessary and work for the common good. They do not see someone they disagree with as the enemy.

One of the intriguing things about good politicians is that 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. I remember when Tip O’Neill was speaker of the House, he’d make sure to let other House members bask in the glow of accomplishment as often as possible. When legislation passed, he’d congratulate everybody involved — he knew what each of us had done to move the ball forward — and you’d walk out of there thinking he’d had nothing to do with it at all, even if he’d orchestrated the whole thing.

I’ll be candid: 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 Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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