Speaking events


No modern president has been prepared for the responsibilities of office. The leader of the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world is much more than a CEO, a general, or a party leader. The American president is closer to a mythological figure, expected to rise above normal human limitations and manage a constant barrage of local and international problems. The pace is breathless, even on the quietest day, and the stakes are enormous, even for the smallest decisions. Nearly every waking hour is monumental for the president of the United States. Mere mortals do not live (or survive) in these circumstances.

Despite the crushing intensity, the president is expected to be ever-ready for crises and forward-thinking for strategy; deeply connected to ordinary citizens but independent of special interests; a manager of democratic institutions and a fearless commander of lethal force. Although no human being can do all the things expected of the president, each individual elected to this mighty office must claim that he or she can. The sensationalist rhetoric of social media only reinforces that unrealistic claim. Like the power of the Greek gods, the promise of the presidency always exceeds what is possible.

Every president struggles with this gap between promise and possibility. Some try to leverage an ever-larger group of advisers, others seek to centralize authority with a small set of loyalists. Most do a little of both, relying on their own energy, insight, and instincts to differentiate which issues require attention at a given moment. Bill Clinton, with his enormous intellectual capabilities, was the master of ad hoc leadership. In a matter of hours (sometimes very late night hours), he could become an expert on the smallest policy details, understand their interconnection, and sell a new initiative to diverse audiences with unparalleled clarity. He remains the greatest policy entrepreneur of his generation.

But that was not enough. In his first year, President Clinton was blindsided by crises in Yugoslavia, Russia, Somalia, and Rwanda that he initially under-estimated, and then misunderstood. For all his focus on domestic issues, especially the economy, Clinton also struggled to manage racial conflict and other social issues at home in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial and the urban riots that preceded his election. In his own words, Clinton was an extraordinary maneuverer and “counter-puncher,” but that left his leadership short of national (and international) expectations. Even he was overwhelmed, beaten down, and humbled in his first White House year.

No president will ever escape the gap between the expectations of the office and the limitations of the individual. The way to begin, however, is to replace denial with frank recognition that presidents are destined to fail more than they succeed. To conduct an effective presidency, the next holder of the office must choose his or her battles carefully, conserve energy, and direct maximum effort at the issues that really matter most. Less is more and planned disciplined, rather than rapid maneuvering, is absolutely crucial.

Presidents must have priorities that they connect closely with policy. Ideology is not enough. Nor is energy and determination. To manage the impossible, the effective American president enters office ready to formulate a strategy that allocates overtaxed time and resources to things that will matter most for his or her conception of the national interest. Keeping less important issues off the presidential agenda is absolutely essential, and that involves discipline and delegation.

In his best moments, when working to reduce the deficit and stimulate the economy, Clinton followed this model. In his worst moments, when hopping from one foreign policy crisis to another, he did not. The next president would do well to study this experience.

This post originally appeared at: http://firstyear2017.org/blog/leading-the-impossible-presidency (26 January 2016).


Successful leaders do not believe that they have the correct answers. They do not have set plans. Policy-making in a period of rapid change and multiplying uncertainties offers few clear paths forward. The role of leadership is to make sure diverse stakeholders are energized to explore the big questions: What kind of society do we want to live in? How can we grow while preserving the qualities that have made our society so livable and attractive?

The model for the leadership we need today is neither charismatic nor technocratic. Charismatic figures are eloquent and persuasive, but they encourage simple choices and polarized opinions. We have enough of that already. Technocratic leaders have detailed knowledge about key issues, but they have trouble seeing the connections that matter most for life, economy, and community. Too much obsession with the details can make inspiring change impossible.

The most successful cities in the United States are governed today by figures who see themselves as brokers with a vision. Urban officials must speak to different groups and take their interests seriously. They must manage diverse revenue flows from taxpaying families, local businesses, tourists, and state and federal agencies. They must also oversee complex spending flows through school districts, police and fire departments, municipal transportation units, housing agencies, and other services of last resort.

There are no consistent formulas for reconciling these different interests. The revenues and expenditures are often unpredictable, especially when the local economy is growing quickly but unevenly. City leaders must constantly adjust to bring different groups into balance, serving many masters and re-defining the common ground that addresses the broadest set of urban needs. This is the fundamental brokering function of  leaders—the core of all politics.

Vision, however, is essential to making urban politics serve a higher purpose. Successful cities have leaders who continually remind negotiating groups that they should work toward something larger than just their immediate interests. Skilled leaders do not dictate a vision, but they motivate stakeholders to see personal value in looking forward toward a larger image of what their city should be like, and what role they should play. A city is, after all, as much an idea as a reality. Urban groups must see themselves as part of something more than themselves—a community—and leaders must help them articulate this vision and its service to each stakeholder’s long-term goals.

No one person or group can impose a vision on another one, especially in a large and decentralized city like Austin. A common idea of what Austin is about must emerge from continual engagement among diverse stakeholders. The common idea will constantly evolve, building on a venerable past as it adjusts to the opportunities and demands of the present.

City leaders are not the dictators or even deciders for the governing vision of Austin. They are the facilitators of the process, insuring its depth, fairness, and representativeness. City leaders must keep the engine of the city running as they push citizens to steer together to a mutually beneficial destination. City leaders cannot presume to know the precise coordinates or the exact route for the destination. Their job is to ask, time and again: Where are we going? How will we get there? How can we keep everyone on board?


This blog post originally appeared at Leadership Austin: http://leadaustin.blogspot.com/2014/01/leadership-starts-by-asking-big.html

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.