Herman Cain and the alpha president
By Daniel M. Ryan
Herman Cain's announcement of his intention to seek the Republican nomination for 2012 has galvanized a lot of conservatives. A recent poll, asking Republicans about who they would support for the nomination, put him in a close fourth. That's impressive for a man with much lower name recognition than the top three (Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.) Word is: those who know him, are won over by him.
His biography is impressive. Not only is he a highly successful businessman, but also he mastered the difficult skill of turning around failing businesses. He's like the investor who's disciplined herself to buy near the bottom, and we all know how few of those there are. His skill as a businessman and manager is one of his selling points for the nomination. It's impossible to be a highly successful manager without having superior people skills, and being successful in politics requires those skills.
Some think that he's too high-risk a candidate because he's never held elective office. Only two Presidents didn't have that experience. Precedents are important, as they give the baseline odds, but every now and then they can be broken. Consider Canada's Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Before him, all elected Prime Ministers of Canada were lawyers. The only ones who weren't, Sir Mackenzie Bowell and Charles Tupper, never won an election; they were appointed to the job. They didn't last long enough to face the electorate. Precedent clearly said that Harper, an economist, bucked the odds too much to win the office. And yet, he's won two minority governments in 2006 and '08 and one majority earlier this year: he's now the first elected Prime Minister that's not a lawyer. Sometimes, even solid precedents can be broken. In times of change, or turmoil, an odds-defyer can be the one to win.
One characteristic Mr. Cain has in abundance has been highlighted by his supporters: leadership. It's not an exaggeration to say that Mr. Cain is a born leader. Certainly, he's a quite a good one: how else could he have turned around and grown Godfather's Pizza as its CEO? If the world is divided into alphas and betas, leaders and followers, Mr. Cain is quite definitely an Alpha.
An All-Too Familiar Outlier
The trouble with the above classification is that there are three types, not two. The division of people into Alpha and Beta started, unsurprisingly, with experiments on rats. Studying social dynamics, the scientists found that certain rats struggled to assume leadership of the rat packs and tended to end up as leaders. They were labelled Alphas. Other rats didn't fight for leadership, and were content to follow: they were labelled Betas. The two categories seemed exhaustive, until those rat-watchers discovered a third kind of rodent.
That rat was labelled the Gamma. Superficially, it appeared to be an Alpha. What differentiated the Gamma from the Alpha was the former's disinclination to either lead or follow. Gammas that got leadership slots grew tired of being the boss and went off on their own. Interestingly, they were confused with Alphas but not Betas. Gammas weren't much for following.
The use of Alpha and Beta to describe people, particularly males, is now commonplace. Remember Al Gore's search for alpha maleness when he ran against George W. Bush? More recently, President Obama's been called a Beta by some conservatives.
The Gamma personality has not entered the popular argot, despite the Gamma's correspondence to a definite psychological profile. A Gamma male, or female, is a dominant loner. Like their rat counterparts, they're not much for following but show little inclination to lead. In a way, it's surprising that there's not more recognition of the Gamma personality because there's a whole Gamma subculture right in front of our eyes. As dominant loners, whether rough-hewn or refined, they're inclined to be individualists. As people, they tend to assume that other people are like themselves. Consequently, they tend to see the leader-follower bond as a little odd or degrading. Some are more sophisticated then others, but their psychological profile inclines them to look on leaders with suspicion and followers with disdain. H.L. Mencken, to take a single example, was all Gamma. What other kind of person would see democracy as something akin to a well-run slave plantation, with vote solicitation obliging the master to always wear velvet gloves and keep pampering the slaves? His knack of portraying political leaders as either rascals or buffoons went hand-in-hand with an eternal contempt for their supporters and followers. Clearly, Mencken's own political prejudices squared tightly with the Gamma profile. So does anyone who despises the "sheeple" for needing the sheepdog.
Despite their disinclination, Gammas tend to attain leadership positions from time to time. They're at their poorest in stable hierarchies saturated by the leader-follower bond. In such an environment, governed by the respective prerogatives due to rank and the associated responsibilities, they tend to be either hapless or ham-fisted. When in that milieu, a dominant loner acts either detached or domineering. Unsurprisingly, Gamma culture tends to look askance at the military.
In less rigid leadership situations, Gammas in leadership roles give themselves away by their individualism. Gamma leaders, when nice, are consent-seekers at heart. They see their role as giving everyone a say and putting together a synthesis that everyone can live with. Gamma leaders run the gamut from self-effacing, dithering, detached, peremptory, callous, to cruel. "Does anyone here feel uncomfortable with this?" "I'm not going to decide until everyone's had their say." "It sounds like you guys have all your ducks in a row; if there's a problem, just give me a shout." "If you can't figure out the job on your own, you might have to be put on sweeping duty." "You want me to tell you what to do? Okay: how about picking up my laundry?" "As for suck-ups, I fire them for their own good."
Gammas come into their own, as leaders, with situations when the old rules don't work and things have gone seriously wrong. Their consent-seeking side makes them good at picking out useful ideas that normally go by the boards due to the restraints of hierarchy. Their domineering side gets people cracking. The latter can be explained away by the exigency of the circumstances. Gammas who know what they're doing make great leaders in catastrophes.
The most famous Gamma in political history is none other than Lucius Quinticus Cincinnatus. An aristocrat who fell out of favour, he was bossing his plough on his farm when Rome's army was routed by the Aequians and besieged. Because he had earlier served as consul, he was known to the Senate and consul Horatius Pulvillus. Asked by the Senate to nominate a dictator, Pulvillus recommended Cincinnatus and the Senate assented. Cincinnatus found out that he was absolute ruler for a six-month term, and could do whatever he saw fit to save Rome.
After nominating one of Rome's best soldiers to be his second-in-command, he drafted every able-bodied Roman male into the army and led them out to battle. Sixteen days later, he had defeated the Aequians and made them unconditionally surrender. Once done, he resigned the dictatorship and went back to bossing his plough. Later in life, he was offered the dictatorship to put down a conspiracy; again, he resigned when the head conspirator was offed and the conspiracy vanished.
Long revered for not having any power-hunger, Cincinnatus fits the profile of a Gamma. He may well have been inspired by a noble nature, and a keen sense of honour, but his actions cohere with someone who sees holding power as entailing a disagreeable chore which should be blown off when done. In free societies, where the citizen-legislator is an archetype, there tends to be a recurrent call for Gamma leadership in politics. Consider this ideal: "A good man, when called by the community, has to put aside his self-interest, put aside his private pursuits, and serve in office for the greater good of his community." An Alpha, a person who likes power and its attendant responsibilities, has to think this ideal over because "serve" means "take charge." Even a dog-catcher is in charge of dog-catching as long as she holds the office. A Gamma, on the other hand, understands it instinctively. Since he had an instinctive distaste for ordinary leadership, he instinctively sees taking charge as a net hassle.
Yes, the ideal of the citizen-legislator is a definite call for Gamma leadership. Gammas are trusted to hold power in free societies because they rid themselves of power when duty no longer calls. Such a person is unlikely to take advantage of power when she holds it, or to cling to power after she's needed; doing so isn't worth the hassle.
What An Alpha President Can Do, And What An Alpha Can't Do
None of the above implies that an Alpha President is any worse than a Gamma President. In fact, Alphas have definite advantages over Gammas. As leaders who like leading, Alphas are much better at getting things done through their followers than Gammas are. In normal circumstances, Alphas are more efficacious. Anyone who prefers energy in the Executive wants an Alpha in the Oval Office.
Moreover, Alphas come into their own when an emergency erupts and the old rules still work. Provided there's a workable set of procedures in place, Alphas can use their talent to crack out good orders and meet the emergency head-on. President George W. Bush is an Alpha, and his Presidency showed what an Alpha President can do when America is attacked. Who can doubt that President Bush's finest hour came after he found out about 9/11? Although he needed some time to prepare, he delivered magnificently when America was in crisis and needed leadership. It's true that foreigners sneered at his "Bring It On" speech, but he delivered the kind of leadership that America needed. "They hate us for our freedoms." What could be clearer?
The times when he appeared befuddled or hapless came with situations where the tried-and-true procedures became ineffectual or counterproductive. The reason why "Mission Accomplished" became something of a joke was because the U.S. military had little experience with insurgencies, and had to develop new procedures on the fly. A Gamma President would have been better in that phase of the War on Terror, but a Gamma would have been a disaster right after 9/11. He would have appeared detached, indecisive and/or uncaring when rallying the nation. When executing the retaliation, he would have been either hapless or ham-fisted. Only an Alpha has the leadership skills that are vital in times of crisis, unless the situation is truly catastrophic.
Even when President Bush appeared hapless, like he did during the '08 crisis, he still acted like an Alpha. Bailouts, mostly administered by the Federal Reserve, were the tried-and-true remedies that have been used in every financial crisis since 1970. Had the political ground not shifted underneath him, President Bush and Hank Paulson (another Alpha) would have been lionized for being decisive, quick to respond, and effective in preventing a Great Depression. Had the political climate not changed to a more libertarian tone, TARP would have been seen as masterful rather than arrogant. The Patriot Act, the Guantanamo Bay interrogation centre, extraordinary rendition and the use of waterboarding would have been seen as Rooseveltian rather than threatening. The TSA would have been seen as reassuring rather than intrusive.
When political climate change alters the national mindscape, the weak points of Alphas become evident and the strengths of Gammas become called for. As an Alpha, Herman Cain's strength is in turning a foundering organization into an effective and successful one. He's the type of man who, as Chief of the Executive Branch, has a real shot at making the Executive Branch work. More than most, he'd be good at putting together procedures that promise to make government more efficient and streamlined. Unless things go haywire, those procedures would work. He would bring real energy to the executive, real decisiveness from the bully pulpit, and real leadership in time of crisis.
The trouble is: his weak points are a lot like President Bush's.
By necessity, a business executive is task- and performance-driven. An executive in the Oval Office is someone who will be inclined to make government work. The voters will be treated like customers. A CEO President will move heaven and earth to satisfy the voters…even if the voters – or a representative enough sample of the voters – want more government, more spending, more regulation, or more laws banning what they don't like. Not for nothing is George W. Bush known as a big-government conservative. Michael Bloomberg is an Alpha too.
The best way to curry favour with an Alpha is to be a good and competent follower. The bureaucracy in the Executive Brach will learn it quickly. With respect to cutting government's size, or cutting spending, Herman Cain probably won't. Cutting the deadwood is part of a CEO's job, but it's the part that an Alpha secretly hates. What kind of leader repays subordinates' loyalty and diligence with the axe?
Doing so, to good and competent-appearing subordinates, breaks the leader-follower bond from above. Any good Alpha shies from doing so, because part of the responsibilities of a leader is taking care of followers that are loyal and good. An Alpha needs that bond to get anything done. Severing it is only done when all else fails.
In business, an Alpha can occasionally do so – although not without acquiring notoriety – because the guiding star of business is the bottom line. A continuously lossy company will eventually fold, which would mean that everyone gets the axe. An Alpha who has to sever the leader-follower bond with a lossy department or division can comfort herself by thinking of the shareholders. In politics, "shareholders" translates into voters. A businessperson's in business to make a profit; a politician's in politics to win votes. That's the way a performance-oriented Alpha thinks. Any higher ideals have to wait until the wherewithal is in place to effectuate them. A President Cain won't slash spending unless he has the political capital – and solid voter support – to do so.
Given how Washington works, given the procedures that have been in place for decades, an Alpha tends to be a generator of bigger government. Who are the big heroes in political culture? Who are the great Presidents in popular culture? Which Presidents are lionized in academia, and why? What would an Alpha infer about Presidential greatness from all of these sources?
Herman Cain would be a good man for making government more efficient, and he might prove innovative in making government more responsive. He'll be a great man and a reassuring leader in a crisis. If he gets dealt the right hand, he'd be a great President.
But it's unlikely that he'd be a great budget-cutter. Doing so would upset standard operating procedure in Washington, and would require a skilled combination of consent-seeking and necessary callousness. It requires a conservative Gamma.
Such a Gamma won't be hard to spot. Just look for the politician who, if given due deference, looks or acts as if she were put on the spot.