Defining Leadership

Leadership Lessons From Presidential Campaigns

Kevin Eikenberry asked:

Every four years the United States elects a new President. The process isn’t simple, and it isn’t short.

Because this process plays out in the news media, and because it requires leadership both to gain the job and do the job, there are lessons from the process for the taking. These lessons, while taken directly from the 2008 campaign, are lessons that will be seen in every future (and many past) campaigns.

Consider this article as a first step in those lessons.

Create Opportunities for Communication

Perhaps more than ever, political candidates excel at finding opportunities to communicate their messages. It is in this communication that they attempt to define themselves and their messages and to mobilize support for their vision of the future.

Leaders have the need to do these same things.

While your scope and topics of conversation will be different, you have the same needs to define your organization’s future, to communicate your message, to mobilize your team for the organization’s goals, and more. Yet most all leaders fall short in communication. Consistently employee surveys show that communication is less than adequate in their organizations. This message seems to fall on deaf ears for too many leaders.

As a leader you must communicate more effectively, more consistently and more often. Use the lesson of the candidates: they never miss an opportunity to share their message with those they hope to lead.

How well do you measure up to their model?

Hone Your Messages

The political candidates work hard to hone their messages. They spend tremendous amounts of time crafting and crystallizing their key messages, philosophies and beliefs. They deliver those messages regularly (see the previous point about creating opportunities). The best (and ultimately most successful) candidates not only hone their message, but they don’t get tired of that message; they stay on point consistently for the long haul. They also have a team of handlers, strategists and speechwriters to help them and to give them the feedback they need to continue to improve.

You may not have have handlers, strategies and speechwriters. (Likely you aren’t giving 6 speeches, or more, most days either!) But, you need to do all of these things to have the maximum impact.

Are your main organizational messages clear and unwavering? Do people know the principles that guide you as a leader and the organization overall? Do you work hard to stay on message, and not move on to something new when you are tired of talking about the same initiative or project? And lastly, but just as important, are you getting, hearing and incorporating feedback from others to help you improve your communication skills?

Admitting Mistakes

Innovation will create some mistakes. When you are trying new things, not everything is going to work the first time (or at all). As a leader in organizations you must be willing to admit your mistakes. Why? Because if you don’t neither will anyone else.

Your silence will be interpreted as either: you don’t make mistakes or mistakes are not tolerated in your workplace. If you want to allow mistakes (and the lessons that come from them), you must make it clear that mistakes are OK. The fastest way to do that is to admit your own. In addition, when you admit your mistakes you build your credibility and trust with others.

Whether it is raised by the media or their opponents, presidential candidates typically have to deal with mistakes and/or errors in judgment. Generally speaking few candidates score well in this area. Each tries to deflect the questions, change the subject or, in some other way, deny there was any mistake at all.

There is great peril for candidates with this approach. It appears from the outside that people don’t want to admit a mistake due to ego or a perceived lack of judgment. When considered in a more personal and up-close light, you realize that not admitting a mistake is a mistake – costing credibility and trust (at the very least).

Unfortunately many leaders are afraid or reluctant to admit mistakes for the same reasons as the candidates, and they face the same pitfalls for doing so.

Build Networks

Candidates know they can’t win a nomination alone. They must have endorsements, contributions, support, help and more from a wide range of people. This is why the best politicians are typically great networkers.

Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara are legends for their handwritten notes. It is well documented that between them they have written thousands of personal notes to people – and they began long before Mr. Bush decided he wanted to be President Bush. The message is clear – to reach large goals we need help and support from many. All the candidates – even those who don’t win – know and act on this fact.

However, in many organizations, individual leaders become insular. They might have a network inside the organization, but seldom do they work hard to maintain and build their network – especially outside their function or organization. The best leaders know they need to cultivate a wide assortment of friends, colleagues, supporters and more. This network will serve them in many ways, often in ways not seen as it is being created.

If you have a strong network, consider how you can tap it to support the efforts of those you lead. Who do you know that might be a resource to your project team? Who might be able to help your star employee gain some new experiences? What opportunities can your network provide to you and your people? And what can you do for them in return?

Take a tip from the candidates. While you may never ask for a financial donation from your network, your network will still be critical to your personal and your leadership success. Invest the time to build and nurture it.

Presidential politics isn’t business, but these very public events do offer you opportunities to learn and apply lessons that can benefit you and your organization. As you watch, read, and listen to campaign materials, think about more than just the sound bites and the political posturing. Continue to think about the principles you observe that can serve you as a leader and can help you identify and develop your successor and the other future leaders of your organization.


Potential Pointer: Change comes at us from all directions; some we can choose, others are thrust upon us. There are ways to help you open up to change, whether you seek it or it is given to you. When you are more open to the possibilities change might offer, you will be happier, healthier and more satisfied in life.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *