Why I care about how politicians treat their staff

By ALEX WALINSKAS | March 14, 2019

Lorie Shaull/CC By-sa 2.0 Senator Klobuchar has been accused of mistreating members of her team.

What do you look for in a political candidate? Voters often consider a candidate’s past policy work, their campaign platform and social identities they value. As election season gears up, prospective supporters should account for yet another factor: how a politician leads their own team. 

Recent reporting on the 2020 presidential elections has brought up public scrutiny on candidates’ internal leadership style. At the end of February, the New York Times published “How Amy Klobuchar Treats Her Staff,” which built on earlier reports that Senator Klobuchar has a record of belittling and berating her staff. This week, Politico wrote on Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose former aide resigned in protest of the office’s mishandling of sexual harassment from a staff member. Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign team has also faced scrutiny for the mishandling of sexual misconduct. 

This raises an important question: Can a bad boss be a good president? Does a candidate’s ability to lead a prospering nation justify a handful of unhappy employees? New York Times opinion columnist Bret Stephens took a crack at this question last month, making a point I agree with: In general, “horrible bosses make for leadership failures, for reasons that should be obvious.” 

Others will argue that you can separate the two. Stephens points out in his piece that Lyndon Johnson was known to be horrible but still produced the Civil Rights Act. A candidate could make their team miserable and still yield policy that’s well-liked and beneficial to the nation. 

In many ways, this conversation is similar to that of many contemporary artists; when learning that people like R. Kelly have committed sexual assault or are otherwise morally flawed, should we still celebrate their creative successes? While being a bad boss is arguably less severe than committing assault, many political supporters seem to happily brush aside rumors of poor leadership to keep supporting their beloved candidate. 

My opinion is that a candidate’s internal leadership style directly translates to both their character and their ability to execute their political goals. Presidential leadership isn’t just the face a leader presents to the public — it includes their ability to manage the team that gets the actual policy work done. When you elect a president who can’t keep a team happy, you get turnover, policy mistakes and an Oval Office that looks something like that of No. 45. 

Still we can be critical of our criticisms. So far the stories of “bad boss” apply mainly to women running for president. Are our critiques of women candidates genuinely productive or merely telling of underlying gender bias? It’s absurd to suggest that all negative feedback on a woman’s leadership is sexism, but it is important to watch for the line where they are being shot down unfairly compared to male candidates. 

It’s a difficult realization to discover a candidate you’re invested in has flawed leadership qualities. One of the first candidates I appreciated from the Democratic presidential nominee hopefuls was Senator Klobuchar for her bipartisan work ethic and status as a strong woman politician. 

However, after learning about her incredibly high staff turnover rate and reading the details of how she reportedly treats her team, I’m wary. Perhaps this comes from my personal bias; as someone who aspires to potentially work in politics down the line, I wouldn’t want to empower a toxic work environment for eager young policy wonks like myself. 

If you’re feeling conflicted, I have some good news for you — it’s not even primaries yet! The pool of candidates for Democratic presidential nominee is plenty crowded, meaning there’s time (nearly a whole year!) to evaluate and select a candidate you like. To my Republican readers, apologies — your party options are more limited. 

As you research the 2020 candidates and make your own judgements, consider the question: Is this person an effective leader through and through? How does the way they treat their team reflect on the way the may behave as president? As voters, let’s demand to keep our standards high for who should be leading from the Oval Office. 

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