How important is experience?

I happened to catch a few minutes of Talk of the Nation on Monday, while on my way to and from lunch. They were, as is becoming ubiquitous of late, talking about the value of experience, in particular as it relates to the Democratic presidential nominee candidates.* Given the show’s talk-show format, many people were calling in to talk to the host and the guest presidential historian about their own experiences with, er, experience, leadership, and the lack(s) thereof.

One person told an anecdote about a nurse who had “too much” experience, which made her complacent, and forgot to do something. Others told of experienced people in leadership positions who were made inflexible by this past experience, also making them unwilling to consult others.

On the other side, another guy called to talk about how flexibility and willingness to change is great in an entry-level position, but as one rises through the corporate structure, experience is more desirable and more necessary, (presumably because the entry-level people expect to have someone around who knows how stuff works and has been done in the past.)

But through it all, I kept thinking about the statement I saw from one of my favorite history professors not that long ago:

I guess I am just not a big fan of “foreign policy experience.” I don’t find a lot to admire in the practice of American foreign policy. So I tend to think that American foreign policy “experts” are instantly suspect. When I think of the US Presidents with the most foreign policy experience (Jefferson, Adams, JQ Adams, Taft, Hoover, Eisenhower, JFK, George HW Bush), I think that all of them except Jefferson and George HW Bush left US foreign relations a little worse than when they took office. And I don’t think Bush senior deserves much credit for his good fortune. On foreign policy, I think we are better off with people who are thinking completely outside the box.

So all this leads to an interesting question: What kind of experience is important in a presidential candidate? Or rather, what qualities are important in a person who will run our country, and what kind of past actions will show experience using them? Where do we want to see experience, and where do we want to see open-mindedness? (Hmmm, are the different answers likely to result from that question likely to fall along party lines, like the morality measures?)

*Technically, they claimed to be comparing experience vs. change, which is a very apples-to-oranges kind of thing, and about as productive as the comparison of race vs. gender. One of the many reasons I have been trying not to pay attention to this stuff.

-posted by Dana


3 Responses to How important is experience?

  1. jonolan says:

    Experience is VERY important. Even more important though is the capability to learn from that experience. Making the same mistake time and time again, after decades of experience is a good indicator that someone should not be given authority.

    We could now plausibly go off on a rant vs. Clinton. We could also draw some nasty correlation’s between Halliburton and the East India Company…

  2. Alder says:

    I think I value competence most of all, and I see experience as a way of proving competence. However, that experience doesn’t have to be in a particular field. For example, if we are talking about foreign policy, I would think that problem solving, good communication and negotiation skills, and the ability to make decisions based on many different kinds of factors and information would be important. Someone could demonstrate (and build) those skills in other ways than just being involved in foreign policy.

    Then again, maybe I have just tried to make my Classics degree look relevant on too many job applications đŸ™‚

  3. kidsilkhaze says:

    Well, I think it’s interesting that all the candidates who actually had the most experience running a political entity were non-starters in this race. Look at Bill Richardson–not only was he a governor, but he’s the guy you send in when you need to negotiate a release of hostages from places like, oh, I dunno, IRAN. But he was barely on the radar screen (I do hope he gets a VP nod.)

    Also, Clinton can claim all the experience she wants, but Obama has significant more experience holding elected positions.

    I’m most interested in who can take a brand new situation and deal with it well. If we learned anything from Bush and 9/11, it’s that the future holds things we can’t even imagine. We don’t necessarily need experience, but we need leadership, a cool head under pressure, and good decision making.

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