Lessons for leaders from the U.S. presidential election

Written by
Anthony J. Nyberg

08 Nov 2016

08 Nov 2016 • by Anthony J. Nyberg

In this current situation by many measures, this has been a deplorable campaign. The winner will be determined less by what is liked about that individual and more by how much the alternative is disdained. Disillusion among U.S. voters is so high that we no longer believe that anyone of the opposing party cares about public service, such that Secretary Clinton’s career was painted as a lifetime of self-promotion. For more than a decade politicians have campaigned against Washington insiders, but the tone is now such that not only are politicians dismissed as ineffectual, but even their motives are questioned. The downward spiral of distrust, particularly for those of the other party seems likely to persevere. For instance, while there are some voter irregularities, even high-end estimates suggest a trivial percentage of the 126 million votes cast in 2012 were corrupt. Yet, a substantial portion of U.S. citizens believe that the Democratic party is rigging election results and the Republican party is trying to suppress voter turnout. 

Despite the unpleasantness of this political season, there are lessons to be garnered. In this context, I am reminded of four leadership mistakes that I routinely make:

1. Fear

The current campaign feeds on fear. Trump captures voter’s fear of the future by playing to voters who have jobs, but worry about their children being unable to find jobs in a world that increasingly relies on technology and competes globally. Clinton stokes fear of a Trump presidency. Both make exaggerated claims that the sky is falling. This rhetoric is despicable! And yet . . . I warn my children that their futures are bleak when their grades do not meet my expectations; I leverage my students insecurities regarding whether they will find jobs or be competitive with the world’s top talent; I cajole my employers by referring to impending doom if they do not invest as I deem appropriate; I threaten businesses about the calamity that could ensue if they do not alter their ways. In these regards, my own rhetoric may not be to the scale of the Presidential candidates, but they harbor the same concerns. I act this way despite knowing that a more positive message would often be more motivating. The lesson for me is a reminder to check to see if my rhetoric is proportional to the situation, provides positive motivation, and resorts to fear only when necessary.

2. Reluctance to change

The unpleasant political situation is the natural outgrowth of decades of deterioration – we can hope that this is the bottom, but nothing suggests this to be the case. After years of preparation, the path to the nomination was relatively undeterred for Secretary Clinton, leaving us to ponder what might have been had, had the Democratic establishment supported a less flawed candidate. On the other side, the rhetoric exacerbated by entertainment news and ultra conservative candidates fomented an unabated Trump nomination, despite the Republican establishment’s objections. Both remind us that organisational direction takes time and effort to change. For example, in the corporate world, culture develops based on the actions and words of business leaders, is very difficult to change, and negative cultures are much more challenging to alter than positive cultures. Hence, our words, even when said unintentionally or out of anger in a moment of weakness, can have long-lasting, unintended effects; for once stated, we no longer control how others interpret or use those words.  

3. Information deficiency

I am well informed, take an avid interest in national politics, am  a good and well balanced consumer of information from a broad spectrum of news outlets, including the BBC, Economist, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and public radio, am capable of using data analytics and logic to discern fact from fiction, and I am relatively ideologue free. However, despite my admiration for my own beliefs, I did not predict the outcome of the Brexit vote; I disavowed even the possibility of a Trump nomination, and I did not appreciate the deep divisions that exist within our country. I do not know anyone who admits to truly supporting either of the candidates, making me prone to believing that no one does. However, there are tens of millions of true supporters for each candidate. Hence, were I wise, I would use this as a reminder that even being well-intentioned, my views are ignorant of the perspectives, beliefs, and views held by millions of people. This should cause me humility when trying to predict the future. It should also remind me that I may be quick to assume what is best for my organisation, but organisations have many stakeholders and to lead well it is necessary to truly listen and understand varied interests.

4. Facts, what facts?

The deterioration in the political landscape is promulgated by a willingness to obfuscate facts with beliefs or wishes. Our politicians now find it more profitable to appeal to uninformed voters than to be accurate. Our news sources find it easier to gather viewers when extremes are presented rather than when delivering facts. These agencies also rely on hyperbolic rhetoric and confrontation to gain attention, and promote the view that an extreme perspective, argued by volume rather than quality, is informative. Further, many faux reporters spew beliefs that drive readers, viewers, and listeners farther to the fringes. This should remind us that rhetoric matters and can harm our own and our organisation’s reputation. It reminds me that when I portray beliefs as facts to others and to myself, I undermine my credibility and hinder my own ability to make clear, unbiased decisions.