Experience and It’s Importance in Leadership

Lawrence O’Donnell, host of on MSNBC, interviewed U.S. Representative and Democratic presidential candidate Eric Swalwell on Thursday evening, May 2, 2019. During the interview, O’Donnell asked Swalwell the skeptic’s query relative to experience for a candidate campaigning for the highest office. To be specific, O’Donnell asked, “How important do you think the issue of experience is, for a candidate for president?”

The context of the question was a comparison between Representative Swalwell and former U.S. Senator and Vice President Joe Biden, also a presidential candidate. Swalwell, age 38 and now in his fourth term, has been an incumbent from California’s 15thcongressional district since 2013. Biden, age 76, began his political career in 1973, as an elected senator from Delaware. After nine terms, he went on to serve as vice president for eight years, for President Barack Obama.

Experience is often thought to be a compulsory requirement for the task of leadership, and to the credibility and selection of a leader. At twice Swalwell’s age and having more than seven times the years in service as an elected official, Biden’s experience quotient overshadows that of Swalwell’s, to the point of invisibility.

Representative Swalwell answered O’Donnell’s question, in a manner typical of candidates running for political office. He cited his service on both the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, defending our country from international threats to our national security and to our rule of law. He also qualified his public service resume mentioning his seven years as a prosecutor, and “some of the highest National Security policy experience, aside from Joe Biden.”

Swalwell’s effort to shore up his bona fides did not exactly address the substantive gist of O’Donnell’s question, that being the importance of experience and not necessarily the quantitative degree of it. His miscue in answering this was later underscored by his closing remark, which was a more salient and direct challenge of the value question regarding experience as a qualification. Swalwell concluded, “I also believe that being in Congress for a lifetime, not being in Washington for a lifetime, also brings a perspective that will bring new energy and new ideas, and a sunny optimism that we can still solve these big problems.”

The possibility of new energy, new ideas and a sunny optimism being ushered in by a perspective not hewn from incumbency has merit, as well as appeal. It was an appeal used by Donald Trump, arguably the least qualified individual to ever run for president, when considering the metric of service as an elected official. Given the pessimism that tracked his campaign, and that continues to mar his presidency, the merit aspect of that possibility seems less convincing.

However, the merit of experience as a qualifier for leadership is also questionable. Consider that there are currently 435 members in the House of Representatives, with an average of 9.4 years in service. Similarly, there are 100 members in the Senate, with an average of 10.1 years in service. When totaled, the aggregate years served in the House is 4,089, and in the Senate, 1,010. That is a combined total of 5,099 years, slightly more than five millennia. Given the caustic divisiveness of our national discourse, and our present difficulties and dilemmas regarding environmental and nuclear treaties, trade and tariffs, gun violence, climate change, health care, infrastructure, domestic and international threats to our form of democracy, it would be reasonable to speculate if experience has any real value at all for leadership.

It does. The more germane perspective is what kind of experience?

Experience is the knowledge gained from observing, encountering or doing. An investment of time is required to acquire the applied comprehension, competence and skill that determines it. Everyone who has ever sat in classrooms, endured basic training, attended seminars, sweated through scrimmages or practiced hours to capably play an instrument knows this. Practically speaking, the more you do anything, the greater your aptitude and proficiency for performance becomes. But this generalization like most generalizations must yield to the nuances of conduct, and the variables of circumstance.

I consider experience to be of two types: primary and secondary. While both are significant to leadership, one is more fundamental than the other.

Job experience is what is generally thought of, when evaluating leadership. We are inclined to believe that individuals with more time vested in a job, rank or role are better qualified to lead others. The history of their day-to-day, year in-year out application of training, situational recognition and task familiarity makes them better suited to head an agency, department, organization, company or team. This defines secondary experience.

I have seen many examples, in virtually every profession, sector, industry and arena of life that secondary experience IS NOT an indispensable prerequisite for leadership. Otherwise, people with no political background would never unseat an incumbent or defeat a more tenured opponent in an election. Rookie athletes, entering a locker room of veteran players, would never immediately be deemed or expected to become leaders of their teams. Film school neophytes would never direct doyens of the industry to critically acclaimed performances. And young adults, barely out of high school, would never command squads and troops through the life and death circumstances of actual combat.

What enables them to do this? Preparation-the actions, procedures, methods and training done to become ready and able to undertake, execute and perform a task. Preparation defines primary experience, the trial and error operational knowledge gained from learning, training, rehearsing, testing, proving and planning.

Military and law enforcement personnel undergo hundreds if not thousands of hours of tactical training, situational instruction and role playing before being approved for active duty, and assuming any rank of command.

A political candidate can be well schooled in coalition building having spearheaded a venerated non-profit organization, or played an integral role in building an entertainment enterprise, or worked as a community organizer.

Athletes practice the last-second play over and over again for years in parks and playgrounds, before ever executing a buzzer-beating, game-winning score as professionals.

From the hours, days, weeks, months and years spent in preparation, comes the activation and refinement of many of the attributes that comprise leadership. Without primary experience, the many moments for secondary experience are meaningless.

Leadership can also spontaneously occur from seminal moments that override the need for primary and secondary experience. Such moments extract extraordinary conduct from ordinary people who are pressed into form, by climactic circumstance. With attributes spontaneously activated these rare few people are instantly transformed into leaders, capable of doing the superhuman or uncommonly heroic act:

In 1955, a seamstress named Rosa Parks did not practice or plan for the moment she decided to rebuff the Jim Crow dictates of Montgomery, Alabama. But in that moment, self-determinism, intent and courage christened her as the flash-point person to initiate the modern-day Civil Rights Movement.

Nothing could have ever prepared Thomas Burnett, Jr., Todd Beamer, Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick and Sandy Bradshaw for encountering hijackers aboard Flight 93, on September 11, 2001. But with the possibility of targeting the White House, the Capitol Building or a nuclear power plant, their self-sacrificing heroic moment of leadership to thwart the hijackers spared the lives of many hundreds, if not thousands more.

Candidates running for any office, would do better to convince the electorate of the scope and effort spent on their preparation for leadership, rather than tout their accumulated years in office. Seniority does not always equate with possessing deft judgment; having a crisis-management aptitude; being highly skilled and inclined towards coalition-building; or demonstrating the competency, expertise and vision for realizing a new and better reality. Moreover, accruing years in service doesn’t always insure that an individual has gained this knowledge. What needs to be assessed is not how long you’ve done it, but how well you can do it. To follow anyone, people need to be convinced of this.

Special advisor to leaders, recipient of NBA Championship ring for her role as special advisor to the President, GM and Head Coach of the Toronto Raptors.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store