Leadership Lessons from The U.S. Elections

Let me start by saying that what is to follow is in no way intended to be a political statement.  The lessons referred to in the posting apply equally to the Republican and Democratic parties.

What the recent elections demonstrated is that great leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis instinctually knew/know:  leaders have to stay connected to their followers.  They have to be able to walk a mile in their shoes, to feel their pain and suffering and to understand how to restore dignity and self-worth to their followers.  This is how leaders can motivate their followers.

The GOP leadership from the onset did not demonstrate the proper level of understanding for the deep anger and resentment that the populace felt towards the establishment politics of Washington D.C.  While a large segment of the population looked to a candidate that would restore higher paying jobs and reverse the trend of a shrinking middle class, the GOP leadership and the presumptive candidates focused on attacking President Obama; they took positions on policies such as free trade or immigration reform that fueled the anger and passion of their base pushing them further towards the populist messages of Donald Trump. To make matters worse they did not take Donald Trump, his message and the passion that it was evoking in the working class seriously until it was much too late.  Then, rather than connecting personally with this important segment of the population the candidates went after Donald Trump which simply bolstered his status as the “outsider” looking out for the “forgotten America”.  On the other side of the political divide the Democrats failed to read and connect with constituencies that had traditionally voted for them:  rust belt workers, disenfranchised by job loss or lower pay, felt humiliated and unable to hold their heads up with dignity as providers for their families.  Party strategists focused the campaign on “toss up” states and erroneously assumed that Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania (to name but a few) would vote along traditional Democratic lines.  In addition, the party did not fully learn from the lessons that the candidacy of Bernie Sanders had crystalized: that white working class and younger voters had overwhelmingly voted for the insurgent Sanders over the establishment Hillary Clinton.  In the end the lower than expected turnout of traditional Democratic leaning voters sealed the day.

In contrast, Nelson Mandela lived, breathed and personified the hopes, frustrations and resolve of segregated and persecuted black South Africans.  He had walked in their shoes and paid the price through 27 long years of prison.  When he was freed he never forgot his roots and lived amongst his constituents.  Remarkably, he also knew that greatness for South Africa travelled through the expertise and gifts of the white Afrikaners. He took it upon himself to study their ways, culture and emotional fiber.  In doing so, he convinced his rainbow coalition that he stood for all South Africans, a feat that would have been impossible absent his ability to connect with his followers.

Pope Francis declared that he stands for the oppressed and poor.  Many others have declared the same.  However Pope Francis has chosen to live amongst ordinary people, shunning the trappings of the Vatican. He lives simply; walking, touching and bowing before the poor.  His priority, when he visits other lands, is to champion the poor and the oppressed. When he visits political leaders of foreign countries his priority is to bring the power of his position to influence them to abandon corruption, brutality and violence in favor of caring for their constituents.

Which brings me to you, my audience.  Many of you hold leadership positions that touch the lives of your followers and their families.  So how connected are you? And before you answer with the text-book answer “Well, look…I am taking care of business, and by doing that, I am maximizing our shareholder value which means we can employ people who can take care of their families…”, let me point out again that is not how great leaders stay connected.  If you have doubts, watch a few episodes of the TV show “Undercover Boss”.  Many of the CEOs who go undercover on the show start out thinking that they are connected to their followers. They point out that they visit and shake hands with their employees.  They say they have really good benefit plans and that their compensation is competitive in their industries.  It is only when they actually show up incognito as an equal or subordinate colleague that they begin to understand the personal stories, challenges, and hardships of their followers.  This is where they learn about the heroism, dedication, hope, and courage of working people.  They are often truly humbled, and begin to understand their own limitations and to develop respect and admiration for those who serve them.  At the end of each episode, when they assume the role of CEO again and come face to face with their employees, they often become emotional and profess their profound gratitude for those who were so invisible to them. Of course by getting connected to their base these CEOs also experience those who are damaging their organization and can quickly remove the toxins.  Now, the cynics reading this will naturally say “This is a TV show and not reality”. To which I reply, these realities are occurring in each of your organizations as you are reading this blog. When was the last time you walked a mile in an employee’s shoes? How much do you know about their families? Their personal hopes and aspirations? When was the last time they told you anything sensitive or real?  What are they not telling you? Can you anticipate the conversation around their dinner tables?

There are many leaders who are connected with their followers.  But some are not, and here is what I have found:

  1. With ascent, many lose their roots and values. Whereas once they championed their team and were proud providers for their families they create environments populated by those who won’t tell them the truth, give them honest feedback or hold a mirror.  In his book “How Will You Measure Your Life?” Clayton Christensen describes the demise of Jeff Skilling, the CEO of Enron.  Christensen describes Skilling as a contemporary of his at the Harvard Business School, as an outstanding young man. A Rhodes Scholar, he was well liked by everyone, with strong values and a natural leader.  However, as Skilling climbed the corporate ladder, he lost his roots, his values and his connection to those he served.  So we learn that with loss of connectivity to family and friends who can provide anchors, leaders begin to confuse the organizations and cultures they work in as their new roots and values.  And of course, for profit organizations were never designed for this purpose.
  2. Some have never developed the ability for empathy and deeper connectivity with others. Rather than working hard to develop these neuro pathways they prefer to hide behind data and technical/business speak. One senior pharmaceutical oncologist told me he wished the people he managed were more like a scientific experiment with control groups, reliability and validity safeguards rather than, as he put it, “a bunch of unpredictable and volatile people who take me away from my work and passion…”.  Luckily he finally realized that connecting with those who followed him was his work and not a distraction.
  3. Some develop a self-centered view which preaches the mindset of competition and survival at any expense. These leaders carry a zero sum mentality where the spoils are scarce and the strongest and most competitive win the hand-to-hand combat.  There is no time in their world view to think of others, with the exception, perhaps, of immediate family.   They believe that spending time and energy on others slows them down and that it is the aggressive and competitive warrior who will conquer and walk off with the prize.

Resolve this week to examine how connected you are to those you are responsible to lead.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. How connected are you to your followers?
  2. If there is room for improvement? What is in your way?
  3. How will you know if you make progress?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

4 Responses to Leadership Lessons from The U.S. Elections

  1. Mark Soberman says:

    Well put. This piece calls to mind something I learned in business school that has always stayed with me. My professor, Alec Horniman said that there were 3 questions people asked of their leaders:
    Can I trust you?
    Are you committed?
    Do you care about me?
    In great leaders I’ve encountered, the answers to those questions were a resounding yes. In those leaders who fell short, the answers were most definitely, no .I try to judge myself as a leader by how the people I work with would answer those questions about me.

  2. matttkersey says:

    Kaveh, thank you for the thought provoking post. I, too, have experienced the lack of connection of leaders when I was working in a large pharma corporation and your insights into how these disconnects develop are on target. Witnessing this lack of connection in some of those above me often prompted me to consider how connected I was with my team members located in the US, UK and Australia. To stay connected I would schedule “Chats with Matt” among other communication channels. These were informal meetings when I would meet 1:1 with each of my team members at all levels and ask how they were doing and what they needed from me. Yes, it took time and energy away from other pressing demands. Like your pharma example, I saw this a part of the job. I would use a coach approach to stay curious, especially when some of the responses were not what I wanted to hear.

  3. Kathi Love says:

    Thank you Kaveh. As always, thought provoking.

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