The missing element of Joe Biden’s VP search

August 6, 2020, 3:30 PM UTC
Vice President Joe Biden
Joe Biden's vice presidential search should take into account the female candidates' leadership abilities, write Constance Hale and Ella Bell Smith. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds—AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds—AFP/Getty Images

As the national conversation intensifies about Joe Biden’s vice presidential selection, and as the Democratic nominee crafts his short list, we take in the news with a certain dismay. Most pundits rely on a narrow political lens: This candidate would bring this state; that candidate boasts foreign policy experience; another would appeal to law and order types, or veterans, or African-Americans, or Catholics. Those who look beyond the polls to the task of governing may look for a synergistic connection between a presidential contender and a running mate.

Candidates can crave this, too. Buddydom seemed to serve Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992. Candidates as different as George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump have looked for comfort level—a desire to not be upstaged, perhaps, or a “simpatico.” Biden, who did bring balance to the 2008 Democratic ticket, is said to pine for the kind of partnership he and Barack Obama enjoyed.

But in this year of historical firsts—the oldest presidential candidate, the possibility of a winning ticket with a female Vice President, the chance of seeing a woman of color elevated to the second-highest office in the land—something more important than demographics or egolessness is being overlooked. The evaluation of candidates should reflect another first: an expectation that Vice Presidents offer leadership muscle.

Leadership capacity may never be as important than today, when we are discussing so many female candidates, and so many women of color. In the face of historic distrust, disrespect, and disapproval of women as leaders—not to mention racial bias—we should be talking about women not as political pawns but as leadership powerhouses.

The recent verbal assault reportedly leveled at Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by her Republican colleague Rep. Ted Yoho reminds us that vicious biases against women leaders persist. His “bitch” was crude and sexist; his adjective “fucking” added vulgarity.

The handful of women on Biden’s short list all bring superb credentials and work track records. But what are the specific qualities that ensure a woman’s success as a leader?

Traditional leadership characteristics are grounded in authoritarian, militaristic, bureaucratic, top-down models. Those favored today center on servant leadership, such as collaboration, integrity, authenticity, and vision, as well as social conscience and the ability to inspire. Years of studying and coaching female managers and executives, especially African-American women, show us that the key components boil down to what we call GIG: grit, influence, and grace.

Passion and perseverance are the starting points for grit. Being gritty means standing your ground and goes hand in hand with courage, conviction, and confidence. Women with grit know who they are. All of the women who are on Biden’s list have proved their grit. No woman can succeed without it.

Remember when Sen. Elizabeth Warren went after fellow Democratic primary candidate Mike Bloomberg in the Nevada debate? She pointed out that we can’t “substitute one arrogant billionaire for another,” and listed all the ways he fit the category. 

On congressional committees, Sen. Kamala Harris is known for sharp, relentless questioning. She’s also known for her willingness to confront Biden, reminding him in the Miami debate, “That little girl was me.” 

Influence is more nuanced than power. Being influential enables a woman to bring allies and adversaries together at the conference table. It allows a woman to strategize to resolve conflicts and to analyze multiple data sources to make sense of complex issues. She must understand the cultural and political landscape to know how to present her strategy. An influential woman is a boundary spanner, fluidly engaging in different contexts. And she is a communication guru.

Consider Rep. Karen Bass. While some of Biden’s advisers call her to be a “safe” bet, she is anything but. Bass plies her influence as head of the Congressional Black Caucus, building bridges between factions. Her power comes in creating networks that combine allies, coconspirators, and foes. And let us not overlook former UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who wielded influence on the global playing field.

Grace enables a woman to be the quiet in the storm. It merges her heart and her soul. 

It shows all the traits of emotional intelligence that are prerequisites to astute leadership. Good leaders make us feel not just powerful, but hopeful.

Several years ago at a MAKERS Conference, Rep. Val Demings, then Orlando’s first female chief of police, was interviewed by Phil Donahue, who asked her to dance for the audience. (She was evidently an avid dancer as a teenager.) Here was a major player, with outstanding credentials, heading to the national stage, being asked to dance.

But Demings was all grace. She explained that she hadn’t had much time to dance lately; being the chief of police kept her busy.

Any woman on Biden’s Vice President list will need to possess such grace. First, it will help her navigate stereotypes, anger, and attacks. But more importantly, it will give us a sense of calm, unity, and dignity at a time when our country has lacked all three.

Constance Hale is a journalist. She has edited many books on leadership for Harvard Business Publishing, including Our Separate Ways.

Ella Bell Smith is a professor of management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and coauthor of Our Separate Ways: Black and White Women and the Struggle for Professional Identity.

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