You can tell a lot about a person by the people who surround him or her. In theory, the “bigger” you are, the bigger and better the people around you should be. What makes a great leader is a great team. All that.

Susan Estrich

Susan Estrich

Except that very often, it just ain’t so. I can’t begin to count the number of times I have met people who are, in theory, at the top of whatever their game is, and the people around them are, for want of a better term, in a completely different league, with little of the experience, expertise or charisma of the boss; people who owe everything to the person on top, who could never hope to get another job anywhere near as big as the one they have; yes men and women holding on for dear life, whose loyalty may be their strongest suit and their greatest vulnerability.

Those who can’t afford to leave will do almost anything to avoid it. That’s their problem.

It tells you something about the person on top. It tells you that they don’t like to be challenged, that they need to be the smartest person in the room, that they don’t trust themselves enough to surround themselves with people every bit as big, if not bigger, than themselves. It tells you that however large they may look, however exalted their title and substantial their successes, an insecure child is hiding somewhere inside. It tells you to watch out.

Barack Obama‘s appointments tell you that he is one very big guy.

There were all kinds of reasons for the president-elect not to turn to Hillary Clinton to serve as his secretary of state. She has her own power base and constituency, and she commands almost as much attention (and media attention) as he does. She is a 500-pound gorilla who is married to another 500-pound gorilla, and both of them have very large suitcases of accomplishments and connections. All of which, depending on how you look at it, makes for a ton of talent or a ton of baggage.

Obama, to his credit, saw the talent, the strength, the potential of a big team and not a big problem.

Clinton was not a safe choice, but a big one. Ditto for the decision to retain George Bush‘s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and to appoint former Marine Gen. James Jones as his national security adviser.

These are not people whose lives begin and end with Obama. These are not people who have to tell him he’s right even if they think he isn’t because this is the biggest and best job they’ll ever have. What makes them right for the job is that they don’t need it. A small person will see that as a reason not to trust someone; a big person recognizes that he can only really trust those who don’t really need him.

Victory has a thousand fathers and mothers. Defeat is an orphan. If Obama and his national security team can keep this country safe, restore our reputation in the world, provide the young men and women who put their lives on the line for our country the resources and leadership they need to do their jobs and the rewards that should rightly be theirs when they do, there will be plenty of credit to go around. And most of it will, and should, go to the man big enough to choose the best team.

Best-selling author Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her.