The Race to the White House
The weather is great and it’s the most handsome of cities, and I’m slap bang in the midst of the race for the Republican nominations to challenge Barack Obama in November in his home state.
It’s another moment to pause and reflect on leadership.
In Western developed economies, when things are going well, the electorate can be quite indifferent about leadership, and a lot more focussed on ideology. This always changes dramatically as a downturn really takes grip. Ideology and political persuasions run quite a distant second to the search for a strong and powerful leader who can drive the economy towards recovery.
A similar switch happens in times of major conflict. Most heads turn towards a strong leader who can resolve the conflict and bring peace, safety and security back to the nation, in spite of the politics; think Churchill in WW2 or Thatcher and the Falklands conflict.
Business has moved in a similar direction; continued poor performance during a downturn, will bring down the most popular of leaders.
Warren Buffet’s seminal observation on the current recession, “it’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked” ring’s true in both business and politics.
In the USA the economic ‘tide’ has stayed out for a considerable time now. Obama’s inspiring mantra of “yes we can” has been found wanting, as the US economy has continued to tank.
As with most top leadership roles, there is very little relevant training and development available for the job of President of the USA, as success is usually defined by their ability to deal with the unexpected.
Harold McMillan, the former British Prime Minister when asked what politicians fear most, he famously responded “events, dear boy, events.”
As Obama begins to better navigate his baptism of fire, and starts to lead the US towards recovery, we see a more decisive, less partisan and less consensus driven style; which the polls tell us is beginning to ‘pay off.’
This sets a huge challenge to his potential opponents from the Republican Party.
It has been clear for some time that the Republican’s best chance is to select a strong and credible leader with a strong financial spine and a track record of turning around failing economies.
Mitt Romney appeared to have all the necessary credentials:
- Top drawer academic qualifications
- First class experience of large scale business turnarounds
- The proven ability to create wealth for his stakeholders
- Tangible evidence of a large scale public project turnaround with the Winter Olympics of 2002 in Salt Lake City
- Recent experience of running in the Republican nomination race
- Huge name recognition
- A first rate fundraiser
- A sharp intellect
- First class organisation
So why has he not been able to deliver the ‘knock out’ blow to his rivals?
And why has it been such a long, nasty and drawn out campaign?
None of his remaining rivals come anywhere near to touching his credentials for the nomination.
We would say the answer has a lot to do with Mitt being perceived more as a manager than a leader.
He is the perfect model for a ‘leader’ in the good times:
- No one’s enemy, but also no-one’s ‘heart throb’
- An inherent ability to ‘go with the flow’, but therefore not standing for anything concrete for the masses to vote against
- All strategy and process, no emotional connection or provocative ‘promised land’ dreaming
- A competent debater and communicator with little passion or enthusiasm. Everyone understands, but few get fired up or negatively worked up
- Not many are reviled, but few get ‘turned on’
- Brilliant at knocking down his opponents
His approach is all about ‘not losing’.
But this election needs to be won.
Managers focus on NOT losing, and leaders focus on winning.
The Republican’s need a candidate that:
- Is significantly more credible than Obama
- Has an inspired and sparkling view of the future
- Can connect and engage with both blue collar and white collar Americans
- Can communicate effectively and passionately
- Can bring together the extremes of the Republican party
- Can raise significant funds
- Doesn’t instantly alienate the significant groups who would not usually vote Republican, eg Hispanics, women, Blacks, Jews etc
All these attributes would be very helpful, but the stand-out winning qualities are always:
- An unshakeable belief in their ability to lead change and win
- A bold and consistent message
- An ability to connect with and touch the masses
- Sort the economy
“It’s still the economy, Stupid”, and that’s still what the electorate are guided by, but following closely behind, people are searching for a dream to believe in, not a challenging set of KPIs and a business transformation strategy.
Most of all, forget about not losing to his Republican rivals, it’s about beating the incumbent President, Barack Obama – especially as he might just have that winning habit.
As Confucius says, “man who says it cannot be done should not interrupt man doing it“.