6 Leadership Lessons from the 2016 Iowa Caucuses

2016 IowaI can’t help it. I like politics.

I care about the issues and the future of our country, but I also like the ‘horse race’ aspect of it. Observing politics feels a bit like watching sports — there are winners, losers, those with momentum, underdogs, and so on. But, as a leader, politics also provide fascinating case studies in leadership.

So even though the 2016 Iowa Caucuses were a few days ago (making this post old news already), here are some leadership lessons I’m taking away from what we saw earlier this week.

1. Local dynamics matter.

There’s no question that media and technology have homogenized many aspects of our national culture. But local dynamics matter a lot. Not only is Iowa culture different from New Hampshire or California or Texas or Oregon, but the rules of the game in Iowa are different. I had to look up how the Iowa Caucuses work. It’s the uniqueness of the local Iowa situation that requires “a strong ground game” that isn’t as crucial in other states.

Leaders sometimes want to downplay the specifics of a local context, but that’s a mistake. It’s one of the reasons I love our multi-congregational approach to ministry rather than doing video multi-site.

2. Compelling leaders are more about “we” than “me.”

On paper, Bernie Sanders should not be able to come within a gnat’s hair of Hillary Clinton. But thousands turn out to his events a bunch of them voted for him. Why? In part, it’s because Sanders’ message isn’t about himself. He talks about issues that face “us” and what “we” can do. As Donald Miller points out in his StoryBrand framework, many organizations and leaders make the mistake of making themselves the hero in the story, when they really should be the guide. Sanders is compelling because, in a political landscape of “look at me” he’s saying “we can do better.”

3. One big personality is not enough.

Donald Trump has dominated the coverage of this campaign with the force of his personality. But in Iowa, he lacked the ground game to win. Many caucus sites reported that nobody was there to speak on behalf of Trump’s campaign when given the opportunity.

For leaders, having big personality can be helpful — Trump still came in 2nd — but a synergized, motivated team of people who can grind it out in the trenches is crucial. At our church, we know that we need a strong “air war” (preaching, Sunday service) and a strong “ground war” (small groups, counseling) to be effective.

4. Having a long tenure is a huge strength and a huge challenge.

Hillary Clinton has been in the national public eye for 25 years and has the best name recognition among the candidates. The good part is that many people know her and what she’s all about. The bad part is that many people know her and what she’s all about. Her tenure gives many of her supporters confidence in her. It also gives many of her detractors the yawns. She’s faced a tremendous enthusiasm gap, which seems an inevitable consequence of just being around for so long.

In leading a church for just 7 years, I’ve seen that some people just get bored. After a while, they feel like they’ve heard everything and seen everything and just want something new. On the other hand, long-tenured leaders often get the benefit of the doubt from loyal supporters, something which is no doubt helping Clinton maintain popularity (and navigate her email scandal).

5. Fear and guilt are effective motivators (with a long-term cost).

Ted Cruz went all in on the “fear and guilt” strategy, sending mailers that looked like official documents and said “VOTER VIOLATION” at the top. Many people, including the Iowa secretary of state, viewed this tactic as deceitful. But it worked, as voter turnout was an all-time high and many of those folks went for Cruz.

Using fear and guilt moves people — but it also wears thin over time. Time will tell whether Cruz’s strategy continues to work. I think it won’t.

That’s why, as a leader, I don’t want to lean into fear and guilt to motivate people. The short-term gain isn’t worth the long-term cost (not to mention that the gospel provides a totally different motivational structure).

6. Key moments must be seized.

There wasn’t much to see on Monday night. Until there was. Once the results actually came in, campaigns had just moments to decide how to respond. Marco Rubio, having finished surprisingly high, seized the moment by being the first candidate to come out and deliver a short, energetic speech — and in prime time.

Cruz, meanwhile, dawdled around until after many people had gone to bed and then gave a looooong victory speech. As Cruz droned on, Clinton came out to speak and two of the networks switched over to her. Cruz had a big opportunity to seize the moment, and he blew it.

In the same way, leaders occasionally have big moments that come in short windows. We’ve got to seize them well.

What’s next?

I’m not a prophet or the son of a prophet, so who knows. But I’ll be watching…and learning.


Published by

Luke Simmons

I was born and raised in Denver, CO and lived there through high school. Then I moved to Champaign, IL where I attended the University of Illinois and played on the Fighting Illini baseball team. I was married in December, 2001 to Molly, who I met at the U of I. In June of 2002, we moved to Phoenix and have been here ever since. In July of 2006, we welcomed a baby girl, Abby, into our family.

6 thoughts on “6 Leadership Lessons from the 2016 Iowa Caucuses”

  1. And much like the mainstream media… no mention at all of the biggest leadership lesson of all in Iowa. Much like Jesus message, Bernie Sanders has been ignored, ridiculed, and told his message (which is more WWJD than any other candidate) is impossible. But he has stayed the course, refrained from lashing out with personal attacks, and conducted himself with humility. His results are now taking shape as people see the virtues of his message.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s