Michael Leppert: Seeking the label of ‘outsider’ is the weirdest of political goals


In the 1987 film “Wall Street,” Gordon Gecko famously said, “If you’re not inside, you are outside, OK.”

I was impressionable as a young undergraduate when I saw it in the theater that year. Since then, I have firmly believed decisions were only made by the people present in the exclusive room where the next important thing was going to happen.

I still do. Whether the organization is in the world of government or business, entertainment or athletics, it’s my view that the best leaders are insiders.

So, why do so many political campaigns spend so much energy attempting to create the image that their candidate is an “outsider?” The perceived value of it is a mystery.

First of all, let’s be clear. None of the top candidates for Indiana governor are outsiders. The mere suggestion by any of them is nothing but a ruse. Complicating the weirdness further, being from the outside of government, politics or both, has no value for this specific job, either.

The office of governor in Indiana is structurally weak. Constitutionally, the simple majority to override a veto has made it such throughout history. In 2024 though, the entrenched super-majorities in the legislature have made it even weaker. Not since Mitch Daniels left office 12 years ago has the office been occupied by the unequivocal leader of the party.

None of those running this year will change that. There is no movement growing behind any of them. One of them will prevail in the Republican primary and appear on the ballot this fall, but whoever is inaugurated in January will still be taking orders from the gerrymandered power base on the third floor of the Statehouse. The lack of any energy behind any big idea practically seals that deal.

There really is only one policy proposal that has risen above the harmonious nothingness of this primary battle, and that is Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch’s pitch to eliminate the state’s income tax. But because the details on how to accomplish it are undeveloped, this innovative idea feels a lot like the campaign promise of a sixth-grade class president candidate promising to end homework. Ironically, this pie-in-the-sky offering comes from the candidate least likely to be called an outsider. Go figure.

Crouch has an opportunity to achieve a little bit of outsider street cred as the only woman among the top candidates. Even though the GOP has a “woman” problem in post-Dobbs America, the lieutenant governor seems to have abandoned this opening by preaching the same pro-Dobbs tones as the dudes on the stage. This is a mistake.

Eric Doden said he’s not focused on trying to be an outsider, adding, “I’m focused on being a leader and a visionary.” Hmm, the trouble is the “visionary” feature of his campaign is hard to identify, unless the inexhaustible man-of-faith mantra he is promoting is the source of some yet-to-be-named epiphany. It’s possible.

Brad Chambers refers to himself as a “political outsider” often. I think all that means is that he hasn’t run for office before. He wants to get the Mitch Daniels endorsement, another insider who ran as an outsider, getting away with it on the strength of Hoosier civic ignorance.

But Mike Braun wants to be an outsider, too. And why not? He’s only finishing his first term in the U.S. Senate. It’s not like he’s been there for more than six years or anything. Maybe if he were more of an insider, he could have avoided violating campaign finance laws resulting in a whopping $159,000 fine from the Federal Election Commission last week. Maybe.

Gautan Mukunda wrote for the Harvard Business Review, “Great leaders don’t need experience.” He explains that while insiders, those with experience and industry knowledge are a safe bet to be good leaders, they are unlikely to be “great.” These types are defined as “filtered leaders, those whose careers followed a normal progression.” However, Makunda writes, “It’s the unfiltered leaders, the outsiders without lots of experience, who perform the very best,” though they also pose the highest risk.

But that research came from way back in 2012.

In December, HBR published, “8 Essential Qualities of Successful Leaders,” and found something more important. Harvard business professor Linda Hill says successful leaders “tend to have intentionally put themselves in situations where they have to learn, adapt, and grow …” Outsider or not.

True outsiders with a legitimate shot at becoming governor of any state are rare. Question why a candidate would want any voter to believe such an easily exposed stratagem.

When S.E. Hinton published “The Outsiders,” in 1967, the Greasers were in the title role. But she wrote the book as someone from the inside. It’s probably why it was so damn good.

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com. This commentary was previously published at indianacapitalchronicle.com. Send comments to [email protected].

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