Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wanted: Leadership by Example

Our political leaders keep encouraging young people to study math and science, as indeed they should, because the national prosperity depends largely on the ability of its engineers and scientists to convert ideas into the products that keep the economic engine humming.

The business news of the week was the decision of Steve Jobs to relinquish the presidency of Apple, the company he founded. No one has done more to keep the engine humming than Steve Jobs. Some analysts have suggested that his name will in time be enshrined with those of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, and they are right. Even if you are not a Macophile like me, you must be in awe of his ability to conjure up one game-changing product after another.

But the cheerleading of the politicians rings hollow because they exhort by words, not by example. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is the message from the President, who might with more conviction have urged students to become community organizers. For that matter, if students followed the career paths of most of our presidents, they would all be entering law school.

That’s not fair, you may say; we need engineers but we also need politicians, and the two pursuits require different skill sets. Not necessarily. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, majored in physics and has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. Wen Jiabao, Prime Minister of China, is a geologist who studied rare earths in graduate school. Germany and China are the most vibrant economies on their respective continents, while we have mostly lawyers running our government. (George W. Bush held an MBA, which is even worse.)

Maybe Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Bob Noyce, Gordon Moore, or Andy Grove would have made a lousy president. Maybe none of them would even want the job. But just once, I would like to hear the President say to the nation’s young people, “I would like to see more of you studying science and engineering, just as I did.”