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Six Leadership Lessons from the 2008 United States Presidential Race

No doubt that we can takeaway many leadership lessons from the 2008 United States Presidential Race.  Here are the Weekly Leader top 6:

1.) Build a strong team – Barack Obama built a strong team and unlike some of his rivals during the primary and general elections, there was no apparent dissension during the campaign. (Near Flawless Run Is Credited In Victory – NY Times Nov. 5, 2008) Taking a lesson from Jim Collins Good to Great, Obama took care to get the right people on the bus. From Good to Great:

The good-to-great leaders understood three simple truths. First, if you begin with “who,” rather than “what,” you can more easily adapt to a changing world. If people join the bus primarily because of where it is going, what happens if you get ten miles down the road and you need to change direction? You’ve got a problem. But if people are on the bus because of who else is on the bus, then it’s much easier to change direction: “Hey, I got on this bus because of who else is on it; if we need to change direction to be more successful, fine with me.” Second, if you have the right people on the bus, the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away. The right people don’t need to be tightly managed or fired up; they will be self-motivated by the inner drive to produce the best results and to be part of creating something great. Third, if you have the wrong people, it doesn’t matter whether you discover the right direction; you still won’t have a great company. Great vision without great people is irrelevant.

In his victory speech, Obama very publicly thanked his team for all of their hard work, guidance and support.

On several occasions over the course of the campaign the McCain team experienced some internal turbulence from changing significant staff mid-stream (McCain Orders Shake-Up Of Campaign – NY Times – July 3, 2008) to the reports in the final weeks that his choice for Vice Presidential partner was going rogue (Rogue States – Channel4 – Oct. 26, 2008).

Leadership takeaway: No matter how visionary a leader is, the importance of surrounding yourself with strong team members can never be overstated.

2.) Communicate clear and consistent messages – Right from the Democratic primaries that the Obama team did a great job of crafting and delivering consistent messages across various media. He wrote 2 books, one a biography and the other outlining his vision for America, which helped define him and chart the course of his campaign. Particular attention was paid to using new media tools like, YouTube and Twitter to regularly communicate with supporters, many of whom were younger technology savvy voters. His website was a very user friendly 24/7 FAQ resource for visitors.  All of this supported Obama’s public appearances and his performances in the debates. Of course, Obama is a gifted communicator and charasmatic leader which obviously helps in effectively delivering important messages.

McCain on the other hand struggle to find his messaging sweet spot which I wrote about here. Without delivering consistent messages, it became difficult to attract the independent voters and sustain the support of his core which would be necessary to win the election.

Leadership takeaway: All leaders need to make sure that they can effectively communicate clear and consistent messages to followers in order to increase the probability of success. Additionally, leaders can benefit by finding using social media tools to attract and engage new followers.

3.)  Avoid “surprises” – While people (aka voters) might crave change, they generally abhor surprises. Obama avoided nearly all self inflicted surprises and effectively defused or dispelled those propagated by his rivals. As with many charismatic leaders, Obama benefits from a Teflon persona.

On the other hand, McCain’s “maverick” persona seemed to take pleasure in introducing surprise into his campaign and nothing demonstrates this more effectively than his choice of Governor Sarah Palin, a “fellow maverick”, as his running mate. Here’s an NBC News Special Report with Matt Lauer and Chuck Todd NBC political director discussing McCain’s risky gamble in selecting Palin:

Leadership takeaway: People generally takes comfort in the status quo and prefers predictability. Leaders should proceed with caution when thinking of introducing sudden radical change to a system and would be best served by taking steps to adequately prepare followers.

4.) Focus on the end goal – Obama really excelled at running his campaign as planned and staying focused on the end goal. While he confidently defended his postions and character during the debates and from negative advertising, he always brought the focus back on his vision for the future. Of course, this is always alot easier when you are operating from a position of strength as he was through much of the Presidential campaign. Connversely, McCain often seemed to be putting out fire, some of his own making and other not. For instance, the decision to suspend his campaign and attempt to cancel the scheduled debate in order to return to Washington to provide leadership in solving the nations financial crisis appeared to be a shallow political gesture. He ultimately participated in the debate but the on again, off again nature of his actions hurt his credibility with undecided independents.

Leadership takeaway: While it’s important for leaders to deliver clear and consistent messages, it’s equally important that their actions match their words. Leaders need to provide a steady hand at the tiller and stay the course

5.) Humor humanizes – For what appeared to be a hard fought and, at times, vicious campaign, both candidates demonstrated that humor has an important and powerful place in the exercise of leadership and I previously wrote about this here. In fact, it seemed that since they were running from behind the McCain camp integrated humor into their overall strategy in order to attract new supporters. Both McCain and Palin had very funny appearances on Saturday Night Live which made them both seem a lot more likeable. Here’s  a short clips of Palin’s SNL performance:

McCain’s SNL performance:

Leadership takeaway: Humor can be an effective tool in the leadership toolbox to make leaders appear more human or down to earth and to add perspective to a situation. However, leaders must use humor cautiously, judiciously and strategically because some people are guaranteed not to get the joke. Winston Churchill was one of the most effective in this area.

6.) Failure can provide an opportunity to lead – Failure can provide a unique opportunity to lead as witnessed by the incredibly gracious concession speech delivered by John McCain. Ironically, if McCain had performed in the campaign more like the authentic leader he appears to be in this video, the election outcome may not have been different but at least a bit closer. Please make sure you watch it.

Leadership takeaway: Leaders who take responsibility in failure often rise again to lead again another day. Resiliency is a key leadership characteristic.

About the author

Peter A. Mello, Founder/Editor Founder of Weekly Leader and Sea-Fever Consulting, LLC, a leadership development and strategic communications consultancy. Previously, CEO of an international nonprofit organization and COO of a national insurance/risk management services firm. Peter has been leading people and managing organizations for over 30 years, writes a leadership column for MarineNews magazine and blogs about maritime culture at Sea-Fever. Follow him on Twitter.

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Posted in General Leadership, Toolbox.