Published June 20, 2012
For Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the concept of what it means to be a leader was shaped decades ago alongside his father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney.
“I began by learning from my dad. I watched him -- he literally would take me to the office and I'd watch him interact with the people at his workplace,” Romney said in an interview this week with Fox News.
Romney’s father ran for president in the 1960s, and it's often said he advised his son to make his fortune before seeking public office. Romney has, in business and in politics, been preparing for this moment all his life. He grew up in the shadow of a famously ambitious and successful father. He heeded the lessons and is applying them now.
“You learn from those experiences when it is that you have to show backbone and strength, when it is that you give people that you're working with a little more leeway to make their own decisions, how you have to hold people accountable for the decisions they are making," Romney said.
It’s that vision of leadership that catapulted Romney into many of his management roles -- first as a businessman, then as head organizer of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, and finally as governor in Massachusetts – all of which are being scrutinized as the general election campaign has heated up.
Some, including Romney himself, have argued that his experience renders him uniquely qualified to fix the country’s troubled economy. Critics argue that an executive's corporate experience does not prepare one for the presidency.
President Obama has lambasted Romney as an out-of-touch candidate whose career in private equity investment was only meant to generate wealth for himself and his investors, not to help create jobs or assist the working class.
Romney and his team say corporate and political cultures are determined by their leaders -- and are a reflection of them. Romney surrounds himself with seasoned professionals, demands excellence and expects results.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Romney campaign co-chairman and a strong prospect as a potential running mate, told Fox News that Romney “works very, very well” as a team leader and makes sharp, prompt decisions.
“He is a leader with more than one gear. He can delegate, but he also is somebody who comes fully informed in his own right, and can make decisions,” Pawlenty detailed. “So he's got the right balance between micromanaging and delegating. I think he's got the sweet spot in between.”
Others, like senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom say while Romney promotes a culture of respect among campaign staffers, he can be exacting and come across as impatient.
Fehrnstrom has worked with Romney for a decade and said that vigorous debates and discussions are the norm.
“You have to be on the top of your game when you are in a staff meeting with Mitt Romney. You'd better come prepared to argue your point of view and defend it. And it would be very helpful if you had some data to back it up,” Fehrnstrom said in an interview, also noting that Romney “will usually sleep on things and then announce his decision following that.”
Former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie serves as another of Romney’s close advisers and agreed that Romney is demanding in the collaborative approach he uses, but that decisiveness follows the data he gets from his staff.
“The fact is that Governor Romney is someone who wants the ball at the end of the game. There are some people who would rather pass and some people who don't want to be in that position but he is very comfortable in a decision-making process,” he said.
Personality also factors highly into political leadership, particularly for a candidate trying to get elected. It’s been a challenging area for Romney, who can come across as stiff, hard to relate to or not quite genuine. At the same time, he does crack jokes on the trail and the campaign has released videos of pranks he’s been involved in.
While admitting that Romney likes to have fun and likes to laugh, his campaign staffers reveal that there’s a reason for Romney’s public persona.
“People who have been in the public eye for a long time sometimes are a little more guarded with their humor and the jokes they might crack than someone who is not accustomed to being a public figure like that,” Gillespie said before adding, “His humor is different in private than it is in public, let's say that.”
Fehrnstrom predicts he’ll open up a bit more soon.
“He doesn't go on television to tell jokes. He goes on television for the most part to talk about serious policy. But I do believe over the course of the next five, five and a half months, you are going to see more of Mitt Romney and the personal side of Mitt Romney that you haven't before….I think you'll learn more about his family life. I think you'll learn more about his wife, Ann. These are all things that people will be discussing between now and November. So the answer to your question is that you will see that side of him.”
While potential voters are getting to know Romney better and deciding for themselves what type of leader he would be as a president, the campaign for now is remaining tight-lipped on its vice presidential search and potential transition plans.
Romney, in his interview with Fox News, was adamant that his leadership skills will be better than those of President Obama, a man who “never had a leadership opportunity in his life until he became president.”
“There is a benefit to having led before and learning from your mistakes so that when you become president of the United States, you make fewer of them,” Romney remarked. “The person at the top of an organization sets the tone, establishes the vision and says what the objectives are. And then holds people accountable for following through on those measures. We have not seen that with this president.”