During a Presidential election year when leadership, character, and vision are discussed in the media, business executives are naturally inclined to think more about their own management skills. Executives begin to assess the candidates’ leadership styles and think about the candidate with whom they most identify. They look at different speaking styles, use of stories and real-life examples, or get caught up in the drama of a campaign rally. But while executives may learn something from the political process, they’re just as likely to take away the wrong lessons.
CEOs may therefore be prompted to talk about a vision or plan, give an inspirational speech, or hold a town hall meeting. But they have to be wary of certain traps, for instance, getting sidetracked by style rather than substance, or getting stuck in a broadcast mode, listening just to those who applaud.
On the positive side, however, political campaigns may cause leaders to think more boldly or broadly, and may engender healthy ambition. Unlike the candidates, CEOs can develop themselves as leaders without the intense media glare of a presidential campaign, and that reduces their risk. They just need to keep the fundamentals in focus.
Based on my own experience in working with leaders, I offer six leadership lessons that may be drawn from the presidential race:
Go live, but avoid the stadium venue. Encourage more informal communication, such as one-on-one discussions or unscripted, unstaged town hall meetings. Do some business travel alone, without your staff, stopping by locations quietly and unannounced.
Embrace change personally, don’t just talk about it. Recognize that in order to drive organization change you must also be willing to change — both genuinely and visibly.
Draw on your emotions, but always check in the mirror. Do not make the mistake of letting your passion deteriorate into vehemence, which may come across as anger and stifle disagreement.
Stay on message, but don’t just parrot the same speech. Determine what is important for you and to the business and then repeat it until it sticks. Be clear about what you want to be known for as a leader.
Be curious and discover things about the staff. Be genuinely curious about other people and their lives. This is the real basis for empathy, and without empathy no trust can emerge.
Be yourself, not some scripted version of a leader. Do not try to be authentic, just be yourself. The more that employees feel they actually know you, the more likely they are to trust you.
Always keep in mind that authenticity can’t be manufactured and that no leadership style works for everyone. Employees participate in presidential campaigns, and now corporate leaders find they’re under the same critical lens that people use to judge the candidates. So leaders need to take extra care to ensure their words and actions mesh.
Leaders can learn from the presidential campaigns by taking time to consider what is relevant and useful for them. Avoid all the theater and posturing. Don’t just blindly emulate a candidate. But be inspired by the candidates to do something original.
Stephen Parker is vice president of consulting at BlessingWhite, where he leads the global communications group. At BlessingWhite for 17 years, he previously led the Orhcard Road-based consulting company’s operations in Chicago, London, and the eastern United States. He holds a B.Sc. in physics from Imperial College London.