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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  • Rally Velarde

    What is the fuzz all about ? The employee better than the Boss spin you are trying to get on is not only shallow but contradictory. Why did BO choose Biden ? Because BO doesn't have what John McCain's foreign relationship's experience. Biden will supply that, that is if he keeps his " let me tell you what " temper checked. BO is a first term Senator who is in a hurry to be the next President. What the heck has he done to make himself believe he can do the job ? This is about the presidency of the US of A. And you want a rookie ? He doesn't even look at you straight in the eye when he talks. Go ahead, watch him when he speaks. If he is an applicant in my company, he won't even get halfway in the interview.

  • carol wilgus

    cjwilgus@psci.net says...Now that a legislative committee investigating Gov. Sarah Palin found that
    she unlawfully abused her authority in firing Alaska's public safety commissioner, (reported by The Associated Press)...does your opinion on supporting Palin/McCain remain the same? Haven't we had enough indiscriminate hedging or mis-statements (Iraq and their use of chemical warfare) during the last 8 years? If not, then you are probably sitting pretty good and think all those who have resigned their posts because of Bush's administration simply wanted to retire early.

  • Robin Josey

    The only difference between Palin and Obama is Job Title. Everything else is relative. I've worked for both kinds of manager, and I'd much rather have a principled person who knows what they're doing than someone who looks good in a skirt who claims to have experience, and can't remember history. 8 years of an administration built on mediocrity and fear is enough.

  • Craig Dee

    I think the mistake we make with this arguement is that we equate time with experience. There are some that have experienced more and done more in a short amount of time than those that have held the same position for years. We've all seen some of these hacks in our politcal machine that seem to be sitting in their positions for centuries, but what have they accomplished? I'm sure plenty for themselves of course, or they work their tails off for the election year, but that seems to be it. The same can be said about the corporate world. Sure Palin has only been a governor for a couple of years, but from what I've been reading (and there was a lot of crap to go through to determin right and wrong) she seems to have made some headway in her short time. Oh and why does everyone just bring up her being Mayor for the little town, but never Governor?? Interesting. Maybe the same reason people don't bring up that Saudi Royalty helped pay for Obama's Harvard Degree. Anyway, she's done more for Alaska in two years than, lets say, Schwarzenegger has for California in 6. So, who, in that situation has better experience? Oh but wait, Cali has 36 millon people and Alaska has a little over half a million. What I'm getting at is that these numbers (years, population) are irrelevant. If they were then Clinton would never have been elected (hello its Arkansas). What it comes down to is who is going to do the right thing, who will be able to accomplish the right thing, and who will leave their positions down the road better then when they arrived. It all comes down to vision and surrounding yourself with the right people. Oh and hey Tom, you sound a little disgruntal about something, did you perhaps loose a position to someone that might be the "next best thing"? Live with it, thats business and politics. If we keep doing the same thing over and over, we keep getting the same thing over and over..........its called insanity!

  • bo lindblad

    "a soccer mom with a sawed-off shotgun who wouldn't even abort Rosemary's Baby"


    I haven't been here at FC for quite some time, and now I realise there's nothing to miss.

  • Brian Flores

    Ellis, your arguments are as poorly worded as your logic is thin. Executive experience? Being the CEO of Burger Barn doesn't make you qualified to run McDonald's, just as being mayor of a 5,000 person town doesn't equate with all the moving parts involved in being the second-in-command of the most powerful country on Earth. It's amazing how conservatives have to use the logically fallacious "tu quoque" argument to disparage Sens. Obama & Biden to somehow justify Gov. Palin's credentials (or lack thereof). I'd hesitate to start trumpeting her good moral values, unless you think charging rape victims for forensic testing, abusing your executive power by hiring & firing people based on their presumed loyalty to you, and perpetuating the politics of personal destruction by demonizing anyone whose ideas don't mesh are moral acts. Sen. Obama may not be the most qualified politician to run the country, but as you pointed out neither was Abraham Lincoln. I'd rather elect someone running on the politics of hope than on fear.

  • Jay Meta

    Tom has articulated his opinion well. Unfortunately, he lost credibility in this article when he repeats the meme that she has less experience than Obama. One can certainly make sound argument that Palin is less experienced than McCain, Biden and other active Congress-people. But to claim that Obama, who is merely Senator in title due to his pursuit of the presidency, is more experienced is very hard to swallow.

  • Stephen Lambeth

    The only thing one has to worry about in a Hail Mary play, with the odds against you there is the hope of victory. Occasionally we beat the odds.

    Look beyond your quest for diversity and your racially based guilt complex.

    Of the above, which candidate is a proven leader under duress?

    If you answer honestly, we'll be a better nation.

  • D C

    @Ellis: The distillation of your argument is that your vote for a president is based on how closely their views match yours - Not that this is a bad thing, liberals will do the same. Commentary on Obama's lack of experience was one of the main points made during the democratic pick, though you're willing to elect a "novice" VP with "limited experience". It may be simpler to accept that your choice for a president isn't based on who will best serve the country and uphold the constitution, but who more closely matches what you have been brought up to believe.

  • Ellis McCasland

    Interesting article. I am a die hard conservative but I tend to agree with you. When I initially heard John McCain's pick for VP, I wondered what he was up to. Was he just shaking the trees just to be the maverick he's known to be? Then I came to like Sarah Palin and I embrace her ideas and policy. Regarding her experience, she has more executive experience than Obama and Biden put together. However, she is still a novice in politics and world affairs and will be receiving on the job training. I do believe she has the aptitude to do the job though. She does remind me of those people who advance in their career for looking good or because someone liked them for whatever reason. It's just life. Abraham Lincoln became President with only a short days in the congress and look what he did. Not everything seems fair but all things work out in the end. I would rather have a VP with limited experience with good moal values than someone with tons of experience and a pure lying politician. Obama is more of an example of what you are talking about than Sara Palin. Pick the one with character any day no matter how they were chosen or advanced.