As a board chairman, I can tell you that no board of directors choosing its next chief executive would be put in the position in which the American electorate finds itself today: the choice between two candidates mistrusted by two-thirds of the enterprise.
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Think of it: one CEO candidate caught on tape describing tactics to sexually assault women and a second found to have been caught in lies by enforcement. In the real world, neither would get a second interview.
But that’s exactly what America’s voters are being asked to rubber stamp. Our national parties, acting as the political equivalents of a board’s nominating committee, have each delivered to America’s voters candidates that are not only mistrusted by a majority, but who have an overhang of legal risks associated with their past behavior.
The spectacle that is the 2016 presidential race has put at risk America’s 240-year tradition of competent self-governance, and has pushed the Republican Party, in particular, into existential crisis and the nation to the brink of ungovernable division.
It starts with a fundamental problem – how we find and vet the nation’s next leader. Today’s process violates established principles developed in universities, nonprofits and businesses all over America, our “best practices” for selecting an executive.
No competent nominating committee I know would offer up either of today’s presidential candidates to America’s “board of directors” – the American voter. And even if either candidate had somehow gone this far in a CEO-selection process, the other directors would have intervened in a full-throated effort to stop him or her. And the nominating committee (in this case, the DNC and the RNC) would be asked to resign.
Not that the CEOs chosen to run even our biggest firms are perfect – far from it. But when they fall short, they can and do get fired. Remember the CEO-elect of Lockheed Martin, who was ousted just as he was stepping into his new position, due to the revelation of “a close personal relationship with a subordinate.” By contrast, our Republican Party seems to find itself commandeered by the Trump movement, with no viable path a month before the election, thus leaving a widely mistrusted Democrat to celebrate – not from an overwhelming support – but from what many see as a Hobson’s choice. The likely result? Victory at a cost of exhaustion of our national spirit and our hopes for unity.
The problem in our current political process starts at the beginning: with the selection criteria. We have not established a disciplined process to determine the qualifications for the job. On a board, nominating and search committees have a duty to present for approval qualified candidates based on the priorities of an enterprise. Only after candidates have been fully vetted, including in-depth reference checks, would they be presented for a board vote.
But our broken national party duopoly caters to its fringe voters, runs a byzantine and obfuscatory set of caucuses and primaries, and conducts debates as sporting events. Such a bizarre system not only fails to give us much insight into the character or competence of candidates, but drives away the best and brightest who decline the indignities of such a superficial and demeaning process. We’re left mainly with caricatures – the power-hungry and the narcissistic – in other words, those self-absorbed enough to run the gauntlet that has become our national selection process.
Given the disorder in the Republican Party in particular, it has the most to gain in modernizing its process, which should start with creating something akin to a board nominating committee. Call it a Blue Ribbon Selection Panel, which will recruit candidates, and certify that they have the requisite level of knowledge, experience, temperament, empathy and communications skills.
And such a panel might include the George Shultz’s of the Republican world (or Erskine Bowleses of the Democrat world). If such wise elders and statesmen were to do what any honest-to-goodness nominating committee would do as a minimal check, it would reduce the October surprise risk and remove the circus atmosphere and polemics of the current system.
Think of how the selection panel could neutralize the poison in our body politic, especially as applied to these areas of our most acute affliction:
These reality TV-style events are not helping us to select for critical job criteria. Our current format rewards those who deliver zingers or insults; it fails to elevate candidates of character or substance. What must a president do? Bring together a distinguished and capable group of men and women to staff the White House and the federal agencies, collaborate with Congress, and preside impartially over disparate interests. Glibness in debates has nothing to do with any of those duties. Extended interviews by impartial interviewers and town hall discussions would put an end to this toxic format.
Both parties – and the media – have learned they have more to win through conflict than compromise. Anger drives engagement, clicks and votes. The science of driving engagement in social media and TV – and in politics – has turned us into a nation of lab rats; we are segmented, targeted and stimulated. Our ad-tech economy has built an entire science around this. Hopped up on cortisol and testosterone, voters become enraged and engaged. By contrast, a competent nominating committee would solve for proven judgment, sterling character and the ability to elicit consensus and to compromise. The best candidate would discuss solutions and priorities, not summon our demons in 90-second sound bites.
The Sheer Ignorance
The root of today’s dilemma is neither media bias nor the narrow interests of our national political parties. They are merely responding to an America educated by reality TV, obsessed with celebrity and driven by memes. While no one should seek to disenfranchise the American voter, a pre-selection process would present individuals who are actually qualified – and not the result of vested interests or celebrity. The success of American ideals on the world stage has largely depended on leaders who reflect the principles that have made us a free, prosperous and peaceful people. Most of all, selection committees, by requiring candidates to evaluate real world trade-offs and priorities, would keep them from making innumerate claims both candidates can now get away with.
The Republican Party will almost certainly rebuild, reconfigure and reconsider its nominating process after this election. Using best practices from modern management may give it a competitive edge that would force the DNC to follow suit – and all Americans would be the winners.
Let’s take the exposure of this year’s tragically flawed national election process and turn it into a turning point for our nation.
Joel Peterson is chairman of JetBlue and founder of Peterson Partners, a Salt Lake City-based investment firm. He has served on some three dozen boards, many times as lead director, board chair or chair of nominating committees. He has also been a member of selection committees for nonprofits, and has taught for more than a quarter century at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University.