Why You Should Hire Your Harshest Critic
Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate is a true lesson in leadership
I don’t know about you, but last week I was depressed about the Veepstakes. It felt like a redux of the bruising gender politics of ugly elections past. And then, suddenly, there was a pick: Kamala Harris! And my weltschmerz vanished — not just because Harris is a soul-liftingly historic choice (or because as a former lawyer myself, I’m in awe of her prosecutorial chops). My heart also swelled because Joe Biden, despite a clown-show VP selection process, had chosen an amazing and qualified woman — despite, and perhaps because of, the fact that she had been his harshest critic.
Remember how she struck a brutal blow against Biden in last year’s Democratic debates? Remember how, up until just a few days ago, there were rumblings from the Biden camp about how unforgivable that was? Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate is, to borrow a phrase from Biden himself, a big fuckin’ deal. There are many reasons why choosing Kamala Harris — a former prosecutor, a senator, and a Black woman with the ability to connect to a youthful demographic — was a smart move at this moment in 2020.
But hiring his former rival — an outspoken opponent who has criticized him harshly — as his running mate was also a brave move. It’s a good example for all of us, especially if we ever find ourselves in the position of having to hire a team. Strong leadership takes many forms, and this kind of risk-taking is one of them. Is it comfortable to elevate your harshest critic? Probably not! Is it going to make you better, and make your team better, and get you to your goal faster? Almost certainly. It’s a bold move with key leadership lessons for all of us.
Your critic can be your best endorser
I hesitate to invoke Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power since so many of those so-called laws are problematic, but “Learn How To Use Enemies” is #2 on his list, and makes the point that a former enemy will work harder to prove themself once on the team. If you trust a former rival enough to add them to your team, it follows that they will strive to show teamwork and commitment.
That said, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Biden would pick Harris. Harris was criticized by the largely white and male VP selection committee for being “too ambitious” and “rubbing people the wrong way.” There was a lot of chatter that smacked of misogyny, and misogynoir, as the double-standard was waved around — particularly by former Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, who led the VP search. Dodd, whose very appointment to this role suggested being given the benefit of the doubt about groping allegations in the past, reportedly mused that Harris might not be loyal to Biden because she had so pointedly challenged him on his response to racial injustices in the presidential debates, and “had no remorse” (as men are never expected to have after killing it in a nationally televised event at the highest level, but hey).
Contrary to what Dodd and others might suggest, however, Biden didn’t do Harris a favor by “forgiving” her for daring to criticize him. Harris did Biden a favor by agreeing to join his team, thus neutralizing her former criticism. Your biggest critic is the person most able to understand how you need to change, and the person most able to parry any similar attacks. Your former rival can defend your weak spots because they know exactly what they are.
If you’re not a fighter, hire one
In addition to clinching this key endorsement, Biden has also cannily formed an alliance with a fearsome debater who can land a blow like no other. Harris has proven that she can attack their now-shared opponent skillfully and effectively, making up for a skill gap of Biden’s.
Once you’ve aligned yourself with your former rival, whatever your shared history, you’re now a team, signaling that skirmishes of the past are to be left there, and the energy used for those skirmishes will be channeled toward the competition. That is powerful for Biden right now — to have Kamala Harris say or even just imply, I pushed him on something he was wrong about in the past, and I know and trust that he is going to do better in the future. That kind of personal guarantee sends an extremely powerful message.
Build a team of rivals
Nothing signals confidence, boldness, and mission-over-ego more than bringing your rivals into your inner circle. Only a weak leader would pass up the best and brightest for a yes-man or a sycophant or a (cough) woefully unqualified family member. Biden’s pick of his former rival shows a willingness to drop the ego and go with the best candidate.
In 2008, Barack Obama cited Doris Kearns Goodwin’s phrase “Team of Rivals,” from her biography of Abraham Lincoln, to describe his philosophy for building a strong cabinet. Goodwin’s book details how Lincoln appointed his greatest political adversaries — the men he had defeated for the presidential nomination — to his inner circle in order to benefit from the strong opinions, conflicting ideas, and fierce debate required to forge the strongest path toward the greater good. Obama eventually appointed his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, as his secretary of State. Oh, and he also tapped another presidential rival as his VP: Joe Biden.
If you’re vying for a top spot with a bunch of highly qualified, competent, and effective people, then once one person gets that top spot, you’re left with a cohort of… highly qualified, competent, effective people. People who have spent a lot of time thinking about how to solve all the problems currently facing you. If you have access to candidates like this, bring them to your side.
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Try to hire your successor
Tomorrow is not promised. Whatever your leadership role, you may not be around tomorrow to continue that leadership. (I hope that you will be! And I will be! And 77-year-old Joe Biden will be!) But there’s a reason why whomever is selected as vice president should also be someone ready to lead as president, should the need arise. The phrase “a heartbeat away from the presidency” doesn’t come from nowhere.
In today’s volatile economy (and, let’s face it, in 2020), there’s no certainty about where we’ll be tomorrow. Do you want this thing you built to outlast you? If so, you need a bench of capable people who are committed to the whole, and are, as the kids say, ready to lead from day one.
And you need to give them real work. If you are truly bringing your rival into the fold, signal that you trust them to be part of the team. Entrust them with agency. The best leadership allows for leadership in your absence.
Alliances matter. Make good ones.
Every single Democratic presidential candidate was ultimately on the same side: Defeating Donald Trump in 2020. That entire stage represented a potential coalition of allies — of Superfriends, Avengers, plucky Hobbits, whatever — there to take on a shared enemy. For the good of the country, Biden would do well to enlist all his former adversaries — Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, Booker, Bloomberg, Castro, the rich guy in the tartan tie — now that he’s hired his toughest.
It’s management advice for the ages: Don’t just pull your adversaries closer. Put them in charge of something. Joe Biden did, and he raised $26 million in a day. That’s one way to convert a rival to an ally. Give it a try, it’s unlikely you’ll feel — what was that word? — ah yes, remorse.