A couple of comments on my last post about the political campaign reminded me of another comment I wanted to make about the race and what it might mean for communicators. As one pointed out, neither McCain nor Obama have run any public agency–also not sure what H Clinton has run either–I suppose running the White House might count. How do we judge qualifications for the highest office in the land and possibly the highest office in the world?
Obama’s popularity certainly suggests that his lack of indepth experience in government is not a hindrance to those who are supporting him. We judged Bush in part, as I recall anyway, based on his track record of running a professional baseball team as well as Governor of Texas where he established a reputation as a uniter and not divider. We might say, so much for track records.
The truth it seems to me is that we run our candidates through one of the most rigorous and challenging gauntlets of leadership capability as part of the process of deciding. It is called the campaign. A campaign has almost all the key tests inherent in it to help us determine leadership. First, how do they communicate? Can they avoid the gaffes and miscues that have buried countless candidates before? Can their spouses avoid them as well? Second, who do they choose as their key managers and how effective are those in managing and leadership? This is critical because one of the biggest jobs of the office is putting the right people “on the bus” to use Jim Collins’ phrase. Then, how does the candidate work the team he or she has assembled? Are they cohesive, while still allowing for rigorous debate that results in proper direction? Are they nimble–do they respond quickly and appropriately to the unexpected. Are they disciplined in terms of containing the dirty tricks that inevitably arise from lower levels in the campaign. Do they demonstrate the values that are core to the candidate and are inline with core values of the electorate?
We have been fooled before by effective campaigns (witness Jimmy Carter) but we have also been fooled before by experience and a track record that has not translated well into this office with its unique challenges and pitfalls. But, I submit, it is the campaign and how it is waged more than anything that is the test of leadership that we submit our candidates to. In this regard as well, Senator Obama has done exceptionally well (in my opinion). We must remember too that the real success of the presidency is largely related to how they deal with the realities of this instant news/infotainment world. The media is capable of and willing to engage in spin to an outrageous degree–and in my view anyway, Obama has benefited from the kindly response of the mainstream media–so far. Because what they like to build up they also enjoy tearing down. So the story is not told there–but the campaign is still perhaps the greatest test of how they will deal with the ups and downs of media engagement if they are elected.
Relating this to the corporate world, I take a couple of lessons. I have just hired three new key leaders for our company. Yes, their track records mattered a lot. But the process of working with them in the selection process is also critical–in some cases maybe more critical than the track record. An organizational leader who will assume responsibility for a major crisis, or assume spokesperson responsibility for a major crisis needs to be submitted to some form of “campaign” process. A well planned and executed drill is perhaps the best example. Media training that simulates a variety of circumstances and effectively simulates the stresses and strains of real engagement is also critically important. And, following on from my last post, the judgment coming out of that cannot simply focus on what that person says and how he positions the information. It has to be as much related to what the gut reaction of the audience to that person is. Is he/she likeable, perceived as honest and trustworthy, and do his/her values as reflected in word, gesture and action authentically communicate the values of the organization.