Look past the popularity of candidates to focus on leadership

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As many Republican financiers and strategists sit on the sidelines waiting for Donald TrumpDonald TrumpObama reads mean tweet from Trump on ‘Kimmel’ 5 takeaways from the Pa. Senate debate Report: Clinton ordered operative to troll Trump with duck MORE’s campaign to collapse, a persistent question remains unanswered: Why hasn’t it already collapsed?

Any reasonable answer comes across like trying to explain why an object defies gravity – no matter how many ways you try to explain it, the fact of the matter is the mystery object isn’t hitting the ground. Its existence momentarily suspends all reason. Everyone is left to simply wait for it to fall.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to address the primary concern about Trump. Maybe the better question centers on Trump himself. Is Donald Trump America’s next great leader?

That question seems to be on the mind of many people, including billionaire T. Boone Pickens. Pickens thinks he has an answer to the mystery of candidate Trump: Transcend the way presidential candidates are selected.

In a recent Politico article, Pickens questions the minimal standards by which a citizen qualifies to run for president. “We have people running for president now who don’t even have experience running a lemonade stand.” While it’s hard to argue that Trump hasn’t managed a few successful lemonade stands, Pickens might be on to something.

The current standards to qualify to run for president require a candidate to be a natural-born citizen, have at least 14 years of residing in the United States, and be at least 35 years old. No constitutional standards exist for factors such as experience and capacity to lead – or even to speak English, have a reasonable IQ, or be sane.

Is there a way for all Americans – not just a “bipartisan panel,” as Pickens suggests – to screen candidates for principled and effective political leadership? And, if so, how would the current crop of candidates rate? The Leadership Project for America (LPA) thinks it has its own answers to these questions. While it doesn’t explain Trump’s popularity, at the very least LPA seems to have addressed Pickens’ main concern.

LPA was created to help citizens identify and evaluate political leadership – not simply which candidate is the “most” or “least” this or that – but principled and effective leadership. And, as Pickens alludes to, it all begins with the best criteria to measure leadership. Is a candidate principled? What is the character of the candidate? And is the candidate effective?

Belying many partisan or single-issue candidate “scorecards,” LPA argues that no candidate is perfect. Every candidate has his or her inconsistencies, inabilities and shortcomings. The only accurate 100 percent rating is imperfection, and even the best candidate scores must be understood in this context. That said, LPA insists it is possible for every voter to accurately assess every candidate for leadership skills.

While LPA does not explain the success of Donald Trump, it does provide a comprehensive analysis of candidate Trump and evaluates his ability to lead. And on that count, Trump scores poorly. But so do half the candidates running for president. And perhaps therein lies the answer to the dilemma raised by Pickens and many Americans. Candidates for president, or any public office, should be judged on more than entertainment value, emotional appeal or retail energy.

Using LPA’s Leadership Matrix to evaluate all presidential candidates, how does Trump stack up on consistency, ethics, principles, accomplishments, political skills and communications? A helpful comparison tool on the LPA website makes this sort of evaluation easy. According to this head-to-head, apples-to-apples comparison, Trump ranks a lowly 12th out of the current 16 candidates – he beats only the three Democrats and George Pataki on substantive leadership qualities.

But aren’t those findings counterintuitive given Trump’s frontrunner status? Surely Trump must be head and shoulders above all the other candidates if he is leading in nearly every public opinion poll? No, not counterintuitive at all – if leadership, and not facile popularity, is the quality evaluated.

Pickens’ idea about a “bipartisan panel” to screen presidential candidates might be beyond the pale of American democracy – he did say it is an idea, not a plan – but his instincts about focusing on leadership are good.

Mero is CEO of The Leadership Project for America.