Sarah Palin and John McCain

What Sarah Palin Might Have in Common with Your Boss

A Kick in the Career: Can lack of experience make someone a bad leader? In this week's column, humorist and careers expert Tom Stern considers the ramifications of elected officials emulating managers at a business when making decisions (such as the little matter of choosing a running mate).

One thing you can say about Sarah Palin: she is certainly a conversation starter. I haven't had this much fodder for party banter since Don Imus revealed to the world that his future as a college basketball coach was limited. The left will argue that Palin's stands on key issues are dangerously retrograde. The right puts forth that her everywoman quality is exactly what the country needs. And the media pundits bandy about the notion of whether or not she is experienced enough, since she has even less experience than the experience everyone claimed Obama did not have when his experience was being called into question as not the right kind of experience for an experienced leader to have experience with. Excuse me, I think I just had an embolism.

At any rate, in the realm of politics, Palin has reignited the question on everyone's lips: can someone who is short on experience get elected? Never mind that I have mixed my metaphors, and that one cannot really reignite a question, let alone singe someone's mouth in the process, but the important thing is that to answer it, we need look no further than our own careers. By a show of hands, who has ever worked for a boss who clearly had less qualifications or experience than almost everyone in the joint? Or who may have looked good on paper, but was clearly incompetent? I see. That's a lot of hands.

When John McCain's spin doctors settled on Sarah Palin, to my mind they were exhibiting what has become the norm in political strategy these days, namely putting the needs of party partisanship above the needs of the country. It seems McCain should have chosen someone with economic expertise given the current state we are in and his admitted lack of sagacity in that area. But instead, he chose killer looks and youth to offset the public perception that he was at one point Abe Lincoln's running mate. I understand that he needed to shore up his conservative base, and certainly he didn't need to bring on Alan Greenspan, but I'm not sure a soccer mom with a sawed-off shotgun who wouldn't even abort Rosemary's Baby is the most patriotic selection. So, the first choice becomes one of political expediency and is not necessarily made with our best interests in mind. Now if only the media would unearth that Joe Biden has a pregnant, pole-dancing teenage daughter and taught Rudy Giuliani everything he knows about cross-dressing, things might even out.

It is only natural, then, that business should imitate the political process (since the two have been in bed together longer than chocolate and peanut butter), and put the needs of the company or corporation above the needs of their employees. Often, the system is not set up to reward peak performance, but to reward any number of other factors that keep a company on the path of least resistance. Some of those factors:

  • Youth. Just ask the sixty-year old veteran Hollywood director who has to pitch his ideas to a 23-year old development executive. Director: "I want to tell a story about the beauty inherent in life told through the eyes of a widower who is traveling the country by train in search of his long-lost first love." 23-Year Old Development Executive: "Sounds great, as long as the train blows up and his ex-70 year-old girlfriend turns out to be an alien who's really hot!
  • Nepotism. Many a manager or executive has gotten where they are through the accident of birth (which is not to weigh in on whether or not any of their births was an accident; that's for another column entirely). This remains one of the toughest boats to rock in America. The real danger with nepotism is, of course, that someone without qualifications will attain a position of power that no one could have anticipated. What if Paris Hilton gets bored with being an "it" girl and decides to take on a supervisory position in her father's hotel chain? We could end up with a slut suite in every facility. Or, for those who use cocaine, are French and in a hurry, a toot suite. (Excuse me, I just heard a knock. I think it's the pun police.)
  • Brown-nosing. People who are good at this can rise through the ranks like mercury during global warming. I don't know about you, but if the majority of people that reported to me told me I was a visionary, greeted me with "good morning," and backed it up with a warm box of rolls from Cinnabon every day, I would be loath to downsize them. Did I mention, by the way, that of all my readers, you're my favorite?

Then, there are those who somehow managed to get somewhere on their own merits, but end up being a lousy fit. We've all worked for these folks, too. They have become quite adept at delegating. Which, in the hands of a competent person, can be an empowering way to assign tasks that play to everyone's strengths. In the case of a less than stellar executive, it is a way of getting everyone else to do your job. One thing is for sure, you never caught the Professor on Gilligan's Island asking anyone else to build a transmitter out of bamboo, cocoanut and what's left of Robinson Crusoe's fossilized femur. At any rate, all of these folks get hired despite their experience or level of competence. And, look, it's very likely that Gabriel is up in heaven right now going, "Look at this God dude. We started out as angels together, and now he's got the corner cloud. And what do we get? Disease, war, natural disasters, Spike TV and Strom Thurmond...who hired this guy, anyway?"

Everyone knows there was a Hail Mary element to picking Sarah Palin. Companies do the same thing all the time. Often, when they're in trouble, they don't look to their veteran employees, who know their company inside and out, to solve their problems. Instead, they hire Korn/Ferry, Heidrick & Struggles or any search firm with two names that aren't Cheech & Chong to find someone "fresh and exciting" so that they get an uptick in their stock and a mention in the Wall Street Journal. Sarah Palin brought that same surge of interest and media recognition to the Republican ticket. And just as Google danced around the water cooler in exaltation as Terry Semel struggled in the last year at Yahoo!, so do the Democrats lie in wait for some toxic morsel to contaminate Palin's candidacy. And if in the next few weeks that fails to materialize, the left can still cling to the distant hope that everything will fall into place if someone can just convince Sarah Palin to go caribou hunting with Dick Cheney.

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