The other day a friend asked a great question: “What have you learned about leadership by observing the 2012 Presidential Election?” I’ve followed the race pretty closely for the last 18 months or so, including the primaries. Here are the 3 main leadership lessons I’ve learned (so far).
1. People respond to big, clear, compelling vision.
I like watching the debates on CNN. One interesting thing they do is show a tracker at the bottom of the screen that shows the real time feelings a group of “undecided” voters have as they watch the debate. During the last debate, I noticed something interesting. Any time either candidate talked in a way that was more visionary, people responded positively. Whenever they attacked one another or engaged in tit-for-tat exchanges, the tracker plummeted.
Perhaps what’s been most frustrating for both sides, and perhaps the reason the polls are so close, is that neither candidate has done a consistent job of casting a big, clear, sticky, plausible vision.
For leaders, this means we must continually cast compelling vision. We can’t get lost in the weeds and we must resist the perceived safety of thinking small.
2. Complex issues are rarely understood by large groups.
I’m more of a political junkie than most. I watch Meet the Press and 60 Minutes every week, listen to both sides of political talk radio, and frequent sites like Drudge Report and Politico. As a result, I tend to be more in the loop on many issues than most people (at least more than my wife). I’m no expert, but I follow it.
As a result, I realize how complex almost every issue is. Many perspectives are often demagogued and demonized by talk show hosts but, in reality, complexity abounds.
Our country is such that large groups of people — many of whom are ill-informed — have the privilege and responsibility of deciding the outcome. The candidates try to get into the issues and the media press for details and specifics. But most people can’t possibly stay up on the intricacies of foreign policy, debt limits, currency factors, trade agreements, 2,000 pages of health care law, and a host of other issues.
Complex issues are rarely understood by large groups. Consequently, great decisions are rarely made by large groups. (This is one reason why I dislike congregational church government).
So what happens when people don’t understand (and can’t understand) the complexities? They vote based on style, likability, looks, fear, or they just blindly follow whichever media, talk-show, or celebrity endorser they admire.
For leaders, this means that if you are making a complex decision, get a smaller group of people. If you can’t do that, then try to make the issues as clear and simple as possible. If you can’t do that, then be funny and well liked. If you can’t do that, you’re in trouble.
3. In leadership, every moment matters. But some matter a lot more than others.
This is my favorite lesson so far. It occurs to me that every moment for these candidates matters. Every word they say is recorded, heard, and scrutinized — on the campaign trail or in the myriad of interviews they do. Every word. Therefore, every word matters. Either of them could ruin their campaign faster than you can type 140 characters on Twitter.
But, in leadership, some moments matter a lot more than others. For example, Mr. Romney trailed by 3-5 points headed into the first debate. 70 million people watched him clobber Mr. Obama. A week later, he was ahead. In battleground states, he made up significant ground.
For leaders, this means that every moment of your life — public or private — matters. You can undo everything you’re working for in a moment. And your ability to shine in the big moments is usually built on your faithfulness in the small, unseen moments.
But this also means that you need to identify your moments of biggest opportunity and bring your best energy to them. Some leaders self-sabotage because they don’t think about their key moments and leverage them.
What have you learned about leadership from the 2012 Presidential Election?