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De Gustibus Presidentis


Boston. -- The word appears on every political menu. Leadership. Leadership, any way you like it. Our national craving has made it the staple of election-year dining.

But this year we want our leadership fresh. Indeed, the opinion polls suggest that the popular Early Bird Special is something just out of the kitchen: Leadership Perot.

Ross Perot, entrepreneur and almost candidate, has thoroughly whetted the American appetite. More people have picked Mr. Perot from the pollsters' limited bill of fare than either of the other candidates.

There remains just one huge group of Americans who haven't yet developed as strong a taste for the jug-eared billionaire from Texas. Women.

In the Time-CNN poll, 45 percent of the men chose Mr. Perot and only 31 percent of the women. That's a gender gap of some 14 points, which is about as big as a gap gets. Moreover, it's a difference that's been growing, as men dig in to the Perot dish and women just pick at it.

I am not sure exactly what makes Mr. Perot less appealing to the female taste buds. It may be the man's-man thing. As Harriet Woods of the National Women's Political Caucus says, "There is a little nervousness about macho men from Texas."

It may be the little wife thing. Partnership marriages may be a female preference, but Ross didn't have long intimate conversations about his life plans with wife Margot. She found out he might go for president the way the rest of the country found out: by watching Larry King.

Then again, it may be the absent women thing. There's a dearth of women in Mr. Perot's political inner circle and his business upper crust. He hasn't yet learned to bite his tongue before he says "girl." His company dress code requires skirts for women unless it's freezing. He talks about "grown men hiding behind their women." Women have learned to be sensitive to these hints of sexism in the sauce.

But I suspect the main difference is in the way we understand leadership itself. Women are just as attracted to "leaders" as the next guy. It's just that women tend to see different ingredients.

Business-management gurus such as Judy Rosener of the University of California, Irvine, divide leaders into two fairly distinct styles. Some belong to the command-and-control school. They are the take-charge, top-down people who promise to bring order out of chaos.

The others belong to the interactive school. They are inclusive, power-sharing people who believe that answers come from many sources. The way to get things done, they believe, is to empower people to do them.

Ms. Rosener says that Mr. Perot, with his promise of town halls, television forums and direct access to the people, "talks interactive, talks about consulting people and bringing them in." But, when you look at his record at EDS, at GM and on Wall Street, she says, he behaves straight out of the command-and-control textbook.

The command model is, on average, less appealing to women than to men. We are not talking genetic differences here (see Margaret Thatcher) or gender stereotypes. But many women today have reservations about command-and-control figures. The men end up in command and the women end up controlled.

Democratic consultant Ann Lewis hears old alarms go off in women's heads when a man says, " 'Trust me, I'll take care of it.' It's the second generation of phrases like, 'Don't worry your pretty little head about it.' "

At the moment, women are also wary of Messrs. Clinton and Bush. They have their own leadership conundrums. The president, an uncomfortable, would-be command type, has lost some pro-choice Republican women to Mr. Perot. But he's lost more Republican men who liked him best and last when he was indeed a commander, during the Gulf war.

As for Mr. Clinton, the irony is that his history and style is the model of interactive leader. He's skilled at producing a consensus, finding common ground, including people. But many women still feel uneasy about Mr. Clinton's persona: Can they trust him? Many men tend to see his search for consensus as weakness, giving in to others. A lack of, you guessed it, leadership.

This is still early in the presidential campaign. We're barely into the appetizers. When it comes down to the main course, you can be sure that everybody will be ordering up their same dish: leadership. But we may be very surprised to see how different the plates look when they get to the table.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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