6 Leadership Lessons From An Historic Presidential Election

11/30/2016 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2016
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Six Leadership Lessons from an Historic Presidential Election

As half the U.S. struggles with feelings of numbness and despair after the historic 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, I can’t help but see leadership lessons for all of us. The dazed glare of expert political pundits, experienced politicians, and seasoned analysts still trying to make sense of the result that none of them saw coming reminds me so much of the deer in headlights look I often get from corporate leaders shocked to learn that they are completely out of touch with the concerns, priorities, and pain points of their staff. As we as a country sit in what some would call a lose/lose position – arguably neither most Democrats nor many Republicans are pleased with the outcome – it seems prudent to at least salvage some valuable leadership lessons.

1. Perception is Indeed Reality

As a corporate trainer, I work with leaders all the time who seem oblivious to how they are perceived in the organization. More concerning though is the fact that when they’re alerted to the perceptions, instead of seeing the information as a valuable opportunity to correct the perception, they too often become defensive (e.g. “I’m not aloof!”) and fail to see that perception truly is reality. Indeed, if the perception exists, you have a problem whether you feel the perception is based in fact or not! For example, if your spouse tells you that they don’t feel like you love them, whether you do or not, isn’t really relevant. The fact that they think that you don’t in and of itself….is a big, fat problem!! Pundits often commented that Secretary Clinton’s unfavorable were so high in part because she was dogged by the perception of being dishonest, arrogant, aloof, etc. Throughout the campaign I never got the impression that her campaign sincerely understood the importance of addressing and dismantling these perceptions. In fact, SNL produced a hilarious skit where they seemed to mock her seemingly artificial attempts to “connect with voters” during a televised town hall debate. I can’t help but wonder if she would have been better served by investing more in understanding and addressing the perception problems. Indeed, some leaders seem to think that if they don’t agree with the perception, it won’t impact them. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Even if you don’t fully understand or “agree with” the reality of gravity, you’ll still fall back to the ground when you jump – it impacts you the same whether you agree with it or not.

2. Don’t Confuse an Amazing Resume with an Amazing Leader

Few people can argue with the impressiveness of Hillary Clinton’s resume. During the campaign, Michelle Obama said she was more qualified than anyone who has ever run for the office – and she arguably is just that. But, I couldn’t help but recall that her extensive and impressive resume was insufficient to propel her to victory in her race against Barack Obama – a fairly new U.S. Senator whose resume paled in comparison. But Barack Obama was so much more than a listing of roles and experiences. He was a dynamic, oratorically gifted, eloquent, charismatic, awe inspiring yet humble intellectual force of nature. Yes, experience is great, but when considering top leadership roles, it’s often not enough and arguably not the most important element. Too many companies make the mistake of simply promoting the person who was the best in their functional area – sales, IT, marketing, etc. without placing sufficient emphasis on their natural leadership abilities, charisma, and EQ. Within the realm of senior executive roles, it’s often common to pick the person who has checked the most boxes (completing stints in different departments within the company), but again having the “right resume” while important on some level does not automatically imply that the best resume will translate into the best leader. The best leaders are usually ones gifted with that x factor that might be hard to define but engenders a sense of excitement, respect, and admiration that is priceless.

3. An Apology without Sincerity Probably Isn’t an Apology

While in my opinion Secretary Clinton was held to a ridiculous double standard as compared to her opponent, the fact remains that all leaders make mistakes and when it’s time to apologize…..apologize!!! In my experience leaders are much better served by acknowledging and sincerely apologizing for a misstep as quickly as possible to allow others to move past it (without the negative perception having an opportunity to marinate in their psyche any longer than necessary). When dogged by the private email server “scandal” for weeks which turned into months, her initial reaction seemed to be to dig in her heels and instead of apologizing and moving on, using the kindergarten excuse approach – …but other Secretaries of State before me did it too!!! Once she did apologize, it reeked of coercion. It just sounded like her advisors had likely hounded her for weeks/months showing her poll after poll suggesting that an apology would be politically expedient. As a result of this seeming hesitation to acknowledge wrongdoing, the campaign seemed to stumble through several awkward iterations of the apology – each ostensibly going just a little further into true “apology territory”. The NY Times (9.11.15) published an article entitled “Hillary Clinton’s Long Road to ‘Sorry’ Over Email Use” which outlined the “apology progression”:

Clinton’s Evolving Tone Regarding the Email Server Allegations

- "What I did was allowed. It was allowed by the State Department. The State Department has confirmed that.”

- “Everything I did was permitted. There was no law. There was no regulation. There was nothing that did not give me the full authority to decide how I was going to communicate. Previous secretaries of state have said they did the same thing. And people across the government knew that I used one device – maybe it was because I am not the most technically capable person and wanted to make it as easy as possible.”

- “At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions.”

- “As I look back at it now, even though it was allowed, I should have used two accounts. That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility,”

- "I have been asked many, many questions in the past year about emails, and what I have learned is that when I try to explain what happened, it can sound like I am trying to excuse what I did," Clinton said. "And there are no excuses. I want people to know that the decision to have a single account was mine. I take responsibility for it. I apologize for it."

Yes, it bears repeating that Secretary Clinton’s missteps many would agree were arguably infinitesimal when compared to those of her opponent, but unfortunately in this case her seeming inability to acknowledge the misstep and empathize with the public’s need for a sincere apology only reinforced the perception of her as dishonest, arrogant, aloof, and somewhat disconnected to the average voter.

4. Identify Your Blind Spots

We all have blind spots. We know that intuitively, but I’ve found that the more senior and accomplished a leader, oftentimes the less aware and teachable they become when it comes to their own weaknesses. Monday morning quarterbacking the stunning election upset, it seems likely that Hillary Clinton’s record high unfavorable numbers were a significant Achilles heel for her which likely translated into an enthusiasm gap and tepid voter turnout. Although I’m far from a political expert, it seems clear to me that too often those who didn’t like Hillary Clinton truly loathed and despised her while those who liked her, didn’t love her. That raw reality likely created an enthusiasm gap which probably reduced her turnout numbers across the board. Furthermore, a fair amount of her votes were quite likely anti Trump votes more than pro Hillary votes – not a recipe for a mandate for sure. Another huge enthusiasm problem seemed to be an inherent difference in the focus of the campaigns. The Sanders campaign truly felt like a movement because it was focused on issues of concern to the masses (evidenced by his enormous rallies and his supporters seeming inability to let go of the campaign even after he pleaded with them to endorse his opponent) – in short, the campaign was truly about them and their pain points, and they were emotionally connected to it. In contrast, the Clinton campaign seemed to be annoyingly focused on her and her resume. Issues discussed seemed to invariably be tied to a robotic regurgitation of her resume. Her slogan “I’m with her” seemed to furthermore reinforce the focus not on the people but on Hillary herself. I can’t help but wonder if the campaign or the candidate put enough energy into identifying her/their blind spots (and then working to address those vulnerabilities). As leaders, it’s imperative to develop an appreciation for identifying your weaknesses and surrounding yourself with others who can point out those blind spots. Sitting in rooms full of other leaders telling you how wonderful you are is of little utility, but unfortunately all too common.

5. Don’t Take Your Superstars/Consistent Performers For Granted

On election night jaws dropped as electoral map experts realized that Hillary Clinton’s blue wall (including states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) was beginning to crumble. It was reported that local state campaign officials had been concerned in the final weeks that the Clinton campaign had largely ignored many of the “safe states” seemingly taking them for granted and focusing her energies elsewhere. While one can certainly argue that with limited time and money, it makes sense for a campaign or leader to strategically use those critical resources, it’s also fair to point out that it’s never smart to take your biggest supporters for granted. Similarly in the workplace, it’s such a common phenomenon for leaders to expend much more energy on the troublemakers and take the superstars or consistently high producing workers for granted somewhat. When someone is performing well, it’s so tempting to put those relationships on auto pilot and if anything….pile on more work! Unfortunately, this type of behavior really punishes the workers who should be being rewarded and acknowledged. Furthermore, this neglect can also lead to lowered morale and defections causing the organization to lose its best workers while leaders scratch their heads and wonder what happened.

6. Don’t Be Tone Deaf...Stay in Touch With All Levels of the Organization

As political pundits and experts scramble to explain the surprising election results, the discussion invariably turns to a seemingly obvious conclusion – people wanted change/antiestablishment! That seemed pretty clear throughout the campaign as we watched thousands and thousands rally with passion, excitement, and unfortunately sometimes even violence for both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – arguably the two change candidates. Many were surprised when some voters indicated that they were equally drawn to both candidates. Although ideologically polar opposites in many ways, they both represented a rejection of establishment Washington politics that the electorate was clearly desperate for. Unfortunately for Democrats when given the option of rallying behind an amazingly popular/successful anti establishment candidate like Bernie Sanders, Democrat leadership (and arguably the DNC itself – as suggested in some of the Wikileaks emails), chose instead to overwhelmingly support the government establishment, “it’s my turn” candidate, Hillary Clinton. Similarly, the Republican field of 17 candidates seemed shocked and almost appalled that an outsider with no previous government experience could stand on the debate stage with them, much less win the primaries! Clearly, both parties were quite tone deaf when it came to understanding the pains, priorities, and problems of the electorate they ostensibly represent.

When my daughter asked me what “democracy” was I boiled it down to 3 words – “The people pick!” It seems that the establishment leadership not only didn’t get that, some might even argue that they worked against the inertia of the will of the people throughout much of the election cycle. Embarrassing Wikileaks emails seemed to suggest that the DNC was actually working to subvert the Sanders campaign – a big no, no (resulting in the abrupt resignation of their chairperson). Inexplicably, while the Sanders campaign drew record breaking crowds of supporters hungry to vote for a change candidate, the Democrat political elite seemed bent on ignoring the will of the people and instead simply preferred to back their preferred establishment candidate. Similarly, although Donald Trump consistently won primary after primary – a clear indication that he was connecting with the low-middle income Republican electorate in a way that none of the other 16 candidates was (even those with extensive government experience, including a candidate who was both son and brother to a former U.S. president) – the Republican establishment continued to basically dismiss him as an odd aberration to be ignored instead of seeking to truly understand why he was connecting with this main street electorate and they weren’t. Similarly, so many leaders are out of touch with their organizations. Too often they’re blindsided when great people leave the organization or processes/products are revealed to have huge flaws. Listening to the people closest to the work is so important and unfortunately the higher a leader rises in the organizational food chain, the harder that often becomes.

These observations (so much easier to make in hindsight once the results are known) are not intended to malign any particular campaign. As one who proudly voted for both Sanders and Clinton, I certainly acknowledge so many things they did right, and admittedly I looked forward to waking my daughter in the middle of the night to tell her we’d elected the first female president. But in the midst of the profound shock and disappointment, I began to think through some of the classic leadership missteps I’d noticed along the way for the Clinton campaign in particular. The challenge for us all is to not just move beyond our visceral reaction to the election results but also to internalize the many leadership lessons we can all learn from the experience.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com. Connect with her on Linked In @ www.linkedin.com/in/danabrownlee and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.