Lessons from the Presidential Election

From my November Kitsap Business Journal column…

Fear not. This is not a political op-ed you are about to read. You’ve probably had enough of that by now!

As this column hits your mailbox, we are within days of finishing the 2012 election that started three years ago. If you’re like me you’ve cast your ballot and can’t wait for the political pugilism to end. However, there are still lessons to be learned from it, and we would be negligent if we didn’t take a little time to explore them.

First, let’s define what these “lessons” are, and what they are not. This has nothing to do with how either presidential candidate might or might not make a good leader. I fear we as a country are now better at attracting candidates (from both parties) with skills to campaign, rather than skills in governing or leading. You as a business leader need to be able to do both. That is, send a message, build a brand, create evangelists, and be a leader. Your “electorate” votes with their feet and their money, making it crucial to you to be good at both. The lessons in this column are not about political parties or platforms. Rather, they are about being a great business leader.

Lesson #1 – The eyes have it

During the presidential debates, much of the punditocracy gave passing or failing grades to candidates based on what they saw, not necessarily what they heard. In the first debate, President Obama was roundly criticized for looking flat, uninspired, and tired. Video of him when he wasn’t speaking caught him looking disinterested. Even his most ardent followers acknowledged this.

As a leader, you need to understand that all eyes are on you constantly. This may mean everything from walking down the office hallway, sitting in a prospect’s waiting area, or listening to someone else speaking at a company meeting. People will watch for your reactions, your body language, and your table manners during lunch. What are you telling them?

You need to pretend there is a camera on you. As a leader, you will be viewed as a role model. You will be judged on whether you can earn the right to be a trusted advisor. Body language accounts for 55 percent of communication. Don’t get caught with spinach in your teeth!

Lesson #2 – Sound bytes

Boy, did we get a few sound bytes this election season! Remember these — “47 percent,” “You didn’t build it,” and “Binders of women?” While many of the sound bytes end up being used against them, presidential candidates understand that we as an audience are more apt to remember small, bite-size portions of powerful messages.

As a leader, you need to speak in sound bytes. That means being proficient in language. Improve your vocabulary, learn to speak pithily, and say things that are powerful and will linger. If you ramble and speak disjointedly, then your message is likely to get lost. Be brief, be exact, be powerful, and then shut up.

Lesson #3 – Don’t rip your competition

It never ceased to amaze me that when given the opportunity to talk about themselves and what value they bring, both candidates eschewed the opportunity and instead went about telling us what was wrong with their opponent. The campaign trail, the debates, and especially the commercials focused on the negatives of the other guy, and only countered that they would be just the opposite.

Don’t get caught in this trap. You all have competition. You need to focus your language and actions on how you improve the condition of your clients, not what the other guy or gal can’t do well. I spent many years in the insurance industry and know that the practice exists. It may not be as egregious as a national political campaign, but it is there. My guess is that this subtle competitive “spirit” exists in all industries. In the end, you are there to bring value to your client. The focus should be on that and not your “opponent.”

Lesson #4 – Keep telling your story

The presidential candidates are experienced and skilled in getting their story out to the country. They work for consistency, repetition, and gravity. If they find something, they will seize on it and never let it go (see Big Bird). They understand the simple business rule that a prospect needs to hear or see you countless times before they begin to trust and buy.

You have a story to tell. It might be the mission and values of your company to your employees. It might be the enormous value that you provide your clients to improve their business and lives. Whatever it is, you need to be consistent in that message and walk the talk. You need to repeat it early and often so it will sink in. People have shorter memories than ever before due to our technology-driven world. Don’t ever stop delivering your story.

Bottom line — The presidential election will end soon, but your business pursuits are ongoing. Take away some of the lessons, both good and bad, from the people vying for the highest-ranking job in the country, and apply them to your business. If you do, I am confident you will get the votes you need for success.

Dan Weedin is a Poulsbo-based management consultant, speaker, and mentor. He leads an executive peer-to-peer group in Kitsap County where he helps executives improve personally, professionally, and organizationally by enhancing leadership skills. He is one of only 35 consultants in the world to be accredited as an Alan Weiss Master Mentor. You can reach Dan at 360-697-1058; e-mail at dan@danweedin.com or visit his web site at www.DanWeedin.com.

Never Having to Say Your Sorry

An article in today’s New York Times details President Barack Obama’s retraction for a comment he made regarding the arrest of an African-American Harvard professor by a white law enforcement officer.  He said that the police had “acted stupidly” in the arrest.  What’s more, the comments came in a press conference on his health care package.

President Obama said he regrets his words, but my issue is how he did it.  He said he could “have calibrated my words more carefully.”  To continue, the President said, “To the extent that my choice of words didn’t illuminate, but rather contributed to more media, I think that was unfortunate.”

Memo to the President – Just say “I’m sorry.”

Ditch the words “illuminate,” “calibrated,” and unfortunate.”  You messed up, just fess up.  Nothing is worse than hearing a bunch of $100 words when a $3 word will do just fine.  If you are trying to be influential as a communicator, then be straightforward, sincere, and pithy.

By the way, from a leadership standpoint this is weak.  Have you ever had a boss who danced around saying “I’m sorry” and basically made it out that it was someone else’s fault anyway?  That’s exactly what this sounds like from my point of view.

For a guy who has been widely proclaimed as an excellent communicator, this adds to a series of extemporaneous boo-boos from President Obama (note boo-boo is a $1 word).

When you next find yourself in a position to have to apologize for something (and we all will), whether it’s professionally or personally, make the right choice and pull out those two simple words I noted above – “I’m sorry.”  Pithy, sincere, and humble.

Better luck next time Mr. President.

Read the Story

Mr. Obama Goes to Washington and Speaks

I watched with great anticipation the inauguration speech of the 44th President of the United States – Barack Obama. Not from a political standpoint, but as that of a speech coach anxious to hear how Mr. Obama would deliver.  Out of the “steak and sizzle” of political speeches, we have seen much sizzle from Mr. Obama.  I wanted to see what was left on the grill.  Here are my observations…

•    Obama entered the event looking a little grim.  Not sure if he was trying to look presidential or if the moment was actually finally hitting him.  He did seem to finally start warming up as his time got closer.
•    Unlike Joe Biden, his oath was botched.  From reports it sounds like Justice Roberts was the culprit. Regardless, this is like shooting a free throw.  You know what is coming and can practice it for 2 ½ months.  How do you screw it up on the big stage?
•    A powerful technique the new President has mastered is the “PAUSE.”  Like all great orators, he used the pause to build curiosity, allow for thought, and create momentum to his speech.  Extemporaneously, he tends to sue many fillers.  In his prepared speech, he was flawless.
•    He laid the foundation of his message by recounting the challenges we’ve faced and the ones still facing us.  It was effective for a speech of this kind.
•    He used strong vocal variety and repetition with the phrase, “They will be met…”
•    Hits a strong transition with the phrase, “On this day…”
•    Loved that he wasn’t scared to include God and Scriptures in his text.  I was concerned he might be too politically correct.  Kudos.
•    Strong use of repetition vocally and emotionally – example “For us…”
•    One distraction, he has is the Bill Clinton “clench.” I prefer an open hand.  In addition, he tends to use his right hand significantly more than his left.  Minor, yes.  But distractions can take away from your message.
•    His closing was strong, using the George Washington story to draw some historical perspective.  I wouldn’t have minded seeing one more story mixed in to his speech.
•    Rising voice to conclusion with softer final words. Poignant effect.
•    His strengths – powerful voice, vocal variety, language, eye contact, inspirational delivery, rhythm.  The poet reading after him could have learned from him!

Final thoughts – his use of vivid imagery in the language of the speech were fantastic…

•    “Bitter swill of civil war”
•    “Willing to unclench your fist”
•    “Fallen in Arlington whisper through the ages”

If Mr. Obama proves one thing, it’s this – You can inspire, motivate, and persuade with exemplary speaking skills.  He used his to rise from near obscurity 4 years ago to the first African-American President of the United States.  What can you do in your career doing the same?