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The Democratic Candidates (Except One) Flunk Leadership Communication!
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By Brent Filson
James Buchanan said, "I love the noise of democracy!" With the next presidential election cycle beginning, the noise is on the up-tick.
Considering alternative forms of government, all noise in a democracy is good noise. However, in election campaigns, some noise is more effective than other noise. The trouble is, if the coming presidential campaign is shaping up to be anything like recent ones, the noise we will be subjected to will be thunderously ineffective.
Many millions of dollars are being poured into the campaigns; yet the candidates havenít bought one pennyís worth of insights into fundamental truths of human motivation and communication.
If I were giving them a course on Motivational Leadership 101, every candidate would flunk (except 1).
In the political arena, the message is not just the message. The message is also the messenger. Presentations communicate information, which is the message. If leadership communication was simply about putting out information, Iíd have no problems with the candidates. The candidates are virtuosos at delivering presentation-like speeches. They can sure trumpet reams of information. However, leadership communication is more than presentation/speech delivery; itís more than being a walking, talking brochure; itís about establishing deep, emotional connections with voters. After all, youíre asking people to take action for you - vote. And people wonít take action unless their emotions are engaged. So the candidates have to connect with people in ways that presentations canít. Leadership talks do that. But none of the candidates seem to know what a leadership talk is all about.
The candidatesí communication problems stem from their propensity to deliver communications which are more like presentations rather than what I call "leadership talks."
The leadership talk is simply a communication from the heart that makes a deep, emotional connection with the audience so they believe in and take ardent action for the speaker. The leadership talk is the most powerful motivational tool of all. Events in history bear this out. Throughout history whenever a people needed to accomplish great things, whether in the realm of religion, military endeavors, political movements, human rights, etcetera, one thing had to happen: A leader had to gather them together and speak to them from the heart. That leader didnít give a presentation. He/she really didnít even give a speech as it is known by the candidates today. That leader gave a leadership talk. Of course, it wasnít called a leadership talk at the time; but when you look back on it, thatís what it was. And thatís what weíre not getting from candidates.
Look at it this way: When a leader speaks, two questions hang in the air. Audiences always ask and answer those questions whether or not the speaker is aware of it. "Can you do your job, and why are you here?" The candidates make a big show of answering the first question. Thatís the information they communicate about what they will do as the president. But the other question theyíre not answering: Why are you here? If they donít believe that you are there for the right reasons, youíll lose them. Thatís what a leadership talk is all about, communicating in a motivational way why you are there. Clearly, with television and political rallies, people are gathering together. But arenít the cheering people the choir being preached to? No candidate has shown the communication ability to branch out from those people, to reach the hearts of most of the voters; and one main reason is that they havenít been connecting by consistently speaking from the heart.
Letís look at a few of them.
John Kerry: It was his to lose. He comes with a distinguished war record: three purple hearts, a bronze star, a silver star. He comes with 18 distinguished years in the U.S. Senate. And yet, in terms of the leadership talk, distinguished alone doesnít cut it. So, heís been playing catch up to Howard Dean. The reason: from a leadership talk stand point, I chalk it up to a lack of joy. Heís got a hang dog look on his face as he rattles off all the problems in America. Sure, America has problems. Leadership isnít about running away from problems. Itís about facing problems. But people respond to leaders who see the problems not, for instance, the way Jimmy Carter saw them in terms of a "national malaise" but the way Ronald Reagan did, "Itís morning in America!" Joy enriches the connection between the leader and the audience especially in the most challenging times. Itís a great motivator because it ratches up confidence to a sublime level. Hey, I know Kerry has joy. Iíve seen it when heís interacting with people one-on-one away from the podium and the mike. And in the last days of campaigning in Iowa, his back to the wall, fighting desperately not to be knocked out by Dean, he started to exhibit that joy when out in front of groups of people. He started giving hard hitting leadership talks. If he can keep at it, heíll be in good shape.
Howard Dean: Spunky, smart, absolutely confident, impulsive, a refreshing outsider. But has he answered the second question? Who really is Howard Dean? He hasnít told us those defining moments that made him who he is and that brought him to this point. I know of one defining moment, and itís not good. He got out of the Viet Nam war because of a bad back and within a few weeks after he got his deferment went out to Colorado and was a ski bum for a year. Sure, heís angry about the direction the Bush administration has taken the country, and heís effectively communicated that anger. His angry has unified a certain segment of angry voters. In a leadership talk you can communicate anger; but you canít communicate deeply with people through anger alone. People want to know why you here. Right now, he is like a street movie set building faÁade, but whatís behind it -- empty air and wall-props? Dean hasnít told us in a personal way -- only in an issue way; and until he does, heís hurting himself and his supporters, because a movie-set candidate from the Northeast will stumble big time in the South. Maybe thatís why he comes across as rather cold -- angry and cold, a bad combination.
Richard Gephardt: The putative Democratic standard bearer who might have the best shot at toppling Bush. Decent, focused, a paragon of Mid-western values. But heís struggling in the polls because heís the classic walking brochure. He says the right things. He does the right things. But heís giving presentations and speeches. Heís not giving leadership talks simply because heís BOR-IIING! He should have taken advice from Noel Coward who said about theater audiences, "You can anger them. You can outrage them. You can have them hate you. But never, never, my dear, bore the hell out of them!" A boring leadership talk is no leadership talk at all. Heís been 32 years in politics, 26 of those years in the House. Maybe thatís his trouble: He should have spent a few of those years in the circus.
Wesley Clark: Like Clinton, he bootstrapped his way from Arkansas lower middle class. He was first in his class at West Point, a Rhodes Scholar, as a small-unit commander in Viet Nam, he was awarded a purple heart and silver star; a true "water walker" career path. But now that he has entered the race, he may very well be the Trojan horse of the Democratic Party. The Republican strategists may secretly desire his nomination.
Look at it this way: In terms of the leadership talk, he is playing catch up on both questions: First, can you do the job? Clearly, Clark has a quick, tough military mind, but his misjudgements of past years -- cozying up to and swapping generalís-caps with suspected war criminal Ratko Mladic in the town of Banja Luka during the height of Bosnian civil war, almost igniting a Third World War by wanting to blunder into Russian troops at the Pristina airport during the Kosovo War, getting fired as Supreme NATO Commander, just to name a few of a long list -- make one wonder if he has the judgment for the job.
The second question, why are you here? To answer that question calls for strong belief. Strong belief is a hallmark of any leadership talk. But the issue isnít just that the leader must have strong belief, thatís a given, but that leader must transfer that belief to the people. For a leadership talk to work, h/her belief must become the belief of the people. That transfer canít take place if people think the leader is communicating certain beliefs just to manipulate them. In fact, if they believe that, people will feel pretty cynical about the leader. And you canít have cynical people become your ardent cause leaders. If Clark is nominated, the Republicans can (No, they will!) show clips of his supporting Bush and Rumsfeld before the Armed Services Committee two weeks before Congress voted to give George Bush authority to wage war and contrast those with clips with his recent: "Iím very consistent. Iíve been against this war from the beginning. I was against it last summer. I was against it last fall. I was against it in the winter. I was against it in the spring. Iím against it now." Sure, his handlers can use the bromide that his support of Bush has been taken out of context and that a leader has a right to change his mind -- but in a tight election race, the fact that people wonder about Clark may be his and the Democrats undoing.
It takes a great war to produce a great general who will give great leadership talks. Clark never got his great war, and he played a suspect role in the war he got, so his uncertain answers to both questions may have him running the hundred yard dash of the race in concrete boots.
Joe Lieberman: Heís been an effective senator. Connecticut should be proud. But thatís his trouble: heís been a senator, one of the olí boys club. Most of them wouldnít know a leadership talk from a hole in the ground. A decidedly "presentation" gang. Consequently, Lieberman is about as exciting a speaker as Star Treckís Spock -- without Spockís inverse charisma. The master of the sleep-inducing presentation, Lieberman suffers from the worst kind of ignorance about leadership communication: He doesnít know that he doesnít know! He seems to think presentations are the vehicle that will take him to the nomination. What a pity. He hasnít attracted a following much outside of insiders. And if he keeps giving his presentations, he wonít attract what little heís attracted.
John Edwards: At first blush, he looks hopeless! The guyís 50 and he looks 30, not the best look for a presidential candidate. His pretty boy looks have gotten him the moniker, "The Breck Girl" candidate. On top of what appears to be his youth and inexperience, heís saddled with having gotten obscenely rich as a personal injury lawyer. The kind of person people love to hate. Polls show that three-fifths of Americans think lawyers are greedy and three-quarters believe they charge too much. So whatís he got going for him? One big thing: Unlike all the other candidates, the guy can give a leadership talk!
A leadership talk is not just about communication. Presentations do that. Itís just not about connection. Some speeches do that. Itís about a kind of communion between the leader and the people. Edwards proved he can give leadership talks in the 1998 senate campaign when he came out of nowhere (never having run for office before) to defeat a popular North Carolina incumbent. On top of that he ran as a centrist in a conservation state. And he ran with all the above mentioned baggage.
Edwards gives leadership talks because he comes to his talking situations fully prepared, he speaks from the heart in a low keyed, genuine way, and he doesnít talk to people, but with people. Heíd smoke President Bush in a debate, unless Bush gets quickly up to speed on leadership talks. If the Democrats are truly serious about winning this election, they have to find a spot for Edwards on the ticket. If they do, youíll see the power of leadership talks.
Brent Filson is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. His latest leadership book is The Leadership Talk: Motivating People To Achieve More Results Faster, Continually.
© 2004 by Brent Filson
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