Learning From Sarah Palin

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • BJ Gallagher Best-selling author, speaker, and human relations expert.

Watching Sarah Palin on Oprah made me recall a wonderful quote by Catherine Aird: "If you can't be a good example, you'll just have to serve as a horrible warning." Which is Palin? A good example ... or a horrible warning? The answer is both.

Whether you love her or hate her, we can learn a few things from Sarah Palin:

1. Dreams, goals, ambition, and drive will take you a long way. The classic American success story includes humble origins, big dreams, lofty vision, a desire to be somebody, willingness to work hard, and singleness of purpose. Palin's life has all the elements.

2. Good looks are an asset. Research studies confirm what we've thought all along: Attractive people are more successful than unattractive people. Up to a point, of course - being too attractive can detract from your credibility. Then you have to prove that you're more than just a pretty face ... so you wear glasses.

3. Style can make up for lack of substance. Chris Martin, lead singer for Coldplay, says that he isn't the best singer or songwriter, but he makes up for it with enthusiasm. Sarah Palin isn't the smartest or most skillful politician, but she makes up for it with charisma and passion.

4. That which is the most personal is also the most universal. In establishing rapport with others, it's important that they can identify with you. Your personal narrative, your life experiences, the stories you tell, determine whether or not people feel you're a kindred spirit. To the extent that the masses identify with you, you become Everyman or Everywoman. You embody their fondest hopes and express their deepest angst.

5. Your future potential is just as important as past experience - maybe more so. I've always taken jobs the same way I bought shoes for my son - a size too big. Because if you take on a job that you know exactly how to do because you've done it before, there's no room to grow. Smart employers hire people for their future potential - smart citizens elect people for their leadership potential. Barack Obama won the presidency because tens of millions of people recognized his potential. Palin is betting she can do the same.

6. Any strength, when it's overdone, becomes a weakness. It's always good to play to your strengths and build on your natural assets. But if you overdo it, your strength can turn into a liability. Too much folksiness can turn you into a country bumpkin; charm can morph into slickness, or even sleaze; firmness of conviction can harden into fanaticism. Fun and breezy "hockey mom" runs the danger of turning into "lightweight." Overdoing your strengths will do you in.

7. Don't take things personally. This is a serious problem for many women, including Palin. Men have disagreements, conflicts, and arguments in their professional lives - then go out together for a beer at the end of the day. Women tend to take things personally, feel attacked when others disagree or criticize them, and hold grudges for days, weeks, even years. Women need to develop thicker skin. As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather, "It's not personal ... it's just business."

8. Feedback is the breakfast of champions. If you want to be successful in life, it's important that you learn how others see you. We all have blind spots - sometimes we're shocked to discover that others don't see us the way we see ourselves. You can't grow if you cut yourself off from critical feedback - even though it's painful. When someone complains about you or criticizes you, thank them. A complaint is a gift ... if you use it and learn from it.

9. Gender roles and expectations are part and parcel of dealing with the world. Like it or not, society has different standards of acceptable behavior for women and men. Women who aspire to leadership have a more complicated path to walk than men do - but women also have great qualities and attributes that men don't. Women would do well to learn from others who've achieved success in their fields - Meg Whitman, Carol Bartz, Muriel Siebert, Mary Kay Ashe, Oprah Winfrey, Sherry Lansing, Dolores Huerta, Hillary Clinton, Dolly Parton, Maya Angelou, J.K. Rowling, among others.

10. Language is powerful - choose your words carefully. When Palin tells Oprah, "I'm not retreating, I'm reloading," she reinforces her image as a loose canon. When she titles her book, Going Rogue, she tells us she doesn't play well with others. When she talks about "death panels," she indicates that she's willing to scare people with misinformation. We have to assume that Palin is a big girl who knows what she's saying and deliberate in the message she's sending. We can learn a lot by watching how she communicates - noticing what works and what doesn't . Are you communicating effectively? Are you consciously choosing the impression you want to make?

BONUS TIP: When things go wrong, the first place to look for the reason is in the mirror. We all contribute to our own problems. the immortal words of Pogo: "We have met the enemy and it is us." Or in Biblical language, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." A wise person has stopped looking for someone else to blame.