27 Oct 2016 19:47 IST

Leadership lessons from the campaign trail

When the stakes are high, will we be ready to do the right things?

With the heat turned on in the US Presidential elections, it’s a great learning experience to profit from the many and compelling leadership lessons that are emerging from the hustle and bustle of the campaign trail. Here are a few that we could benefit from taking on board:

Being authentic

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have been hit hard by simply being inauthentic — perhaps Clinton more so because Trump does little to disguise the fact that he’s boastful, bigoted and boorish. Hillary’s statement to Wall Street bankers that in politics you need to have a private position and a public position highlights her inauthenticity. Trump’s railing about the system and how he is the right person to fix things, rings hollow.

Friedrich Nietzsche put his finger on it: “No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.”

As students preparing to step into the world of work, perhaps the first fork in the road to authenticity comes up at placement time. Candidates believe they can game the process, present themselves as somebody they are not, and get away with it. But with seasoned interviewers, this tactic rarely works. Even if they do land the job, inauthenticity catches up, sooner or later.

Ask Donald Trump, struggling to stave off the embarrassment of his deeply offensive remarks about women that he made in 2005. Things he said and did 11 years ago have come back to haunt him and will most likely affect his success on the campaign trail.

Job candidates who fudge achievements, who lie about their experience or about the reasons for leaving their earlier job, think they’ve beaten the system. But at some point in their careers, they will pay the price. Former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson was fired for padding his resume and Rajat Gupta went from being the toast of the business community to being toast with his ‘insider’ tip to an investor friend.

As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg reminded us in her graduation speech at Harvard: “I don’t believe we have a professional self from Mondays through Fridays and a real self for the rest of the time. That kind of division probably never worked, and in today’s world, with a real voice, an authentic voice, it makes even less sense.”

Beliefs drive behaviour

It’s off-the-cuff remarks that reveal a person. In a campaign that is heavily orchestrated by the campaign teams, right down to the crafting of one-liners and rehearsed responses, candidates are sometimes caught off guard, and that’s when the public see who they really are.

Hillary revealed a close mindedness about a sizeable part of the population she was expected to lead, when she called half of Trump’s supporters deplorable”. Trump revealed his bigoted attitude when he mocked a woman journalist, and made fun of a differently-abled journalist.

How would we fare — on beliefs and behaviour?

For example, one of the biggest changes in the world at work will be its increasing diversity. From gender to sexual orientation, race and many other factors, tomorrow’s workforce will be filled with diverse people.

Will we have the belief system to embrace all of them?; to be able to work with people different from us? Or will strong and biased beliefs show themselves in water-cooler conversations, through inappropriate jokes, and in holding back of deserved promotions? It’s time to ask yourself: “What do I believe in and what am I prepared to stand for as I enter the work world?”

If beliefs need changing, now is the time to work on them. A veneer of appropriate behaviour will eventually be peeled off to expose a hideous visage.

The expert’s problem

Expertise in one area does not necessarily translate into expertise in another. Trump has pitched his candidacy on the fact that he has been a successful businessman (a shaky claim in the first place). Therefore, he says, he will be a more effective President.

But the electorate will wonder whether the skills used to build a business empire, often using questionable means and mercenary short-cuts, will be the same ones needed to govern a country. A President’s job requires doing the right thing even if it involves sacrifice; demands that they stand up for convictions in the face of odds. It extracts a will that is prepared to seek the good of the people over their approval.

Likewise, it is important that we build our careers on strengths that suit a new role or industry, and be conscious of strengths that have outlived their sell-by date. To paraphrase Abraham Maslow, “When you are good with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Marissa Mayer tried unsuccessfully to run Yahoo the same way she operated at Google and struggled to deliver results. Eddie Lampert went from hedge fund banking to managing Sears, but all he did was run it into the ground, using financial strategy instead of retail strategy. Often, strengths of the past can become liabilities in the future. It takes a wise and secure leader to be aware of this and adapt his/her skills and learn new ones.

When the going gets tough

How negative a campaign are you prepared to run? How low are you willing to stoop to win? Will winning take precedence over principles? Leaked videos, old conversations, embarrassing disclosures; creating and trading in scandals? The candidates have a great example of the high road, in one of their predecessors.

When Michael Dukakis was fighting Joe Biden for the Democratic nomination, he fired his campaign manager when it became clear that he was behind a leaked tape that shut down the Biden campaign. Dukakis said it was not the kind of campaign he wanted to run. When the odds are stacked against them, the choice of strategies and tactics that the candidates adopt give us a sneak preview of how they would govern in a crisis.

Politicians seize the window of the moment to knock the wind out of their opponent’s campaign even though they know it might not be the right thing to do. It is like a life insurance salesman at a funeral, who knows it’s terribly inappropriate to start talking sales, but ah, what wonderful timing!

I recall a deal that my team was bidding for. It was a large and esteemed client and we were in a close race with a strong competitor. Any ‘inside info’ would have given the contestants an edge. Through a terrible mistake, our competitor’s proposal was accidentally emailed to us — the entire team — by the client. Some on the team, in the heat of the chase for the deal, were eager to take a peek, but the team discussed and quickly agreed that we didn’t want to win a deal that way.

Every member of the team was instructed to delete the email without reading the contents or the attachment. We immediately informed the client and told them that no harm had been done, and that the competitor’s proposal was protected. When we won the deal eventually, the client team told us that this incident played a key role in swaying their decision in our favour.

It may be an important project paper today, a business case competition or a class debate, but what you’re prepared to do when the chips are down will help define the lines you will not cross when you are face-to-face with tough but decisive moments in your career.

The Presidential race is still open, as two of the weakest candidates in the history of the Presidency slug it out. For us who witness the contest, the lessons from the campaign count. As spectators to this gripping trial of strength, we can prepare for times when we step in as players ourselves. It may be a race for the CEO role, a bid for a coveted deal or anything else where the stakes are high — will we be ready and willing not just to do things right, but to do the right things?

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