Who has what it takes to be the next US president?

Professor Randall Peterson analyses the 2016 US presidential candidates’ leadership traits

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The race for the White House reaches a pivotal stage in July 2016, when the US presidential nominations are announced. As it stands, the Democrats’ Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are head to head, while Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich are the leading contenders for the Republican’s spot. 

Whether the candidates have the leadership traits to win enough votes remains to be seen. But Professor Randall Peterson, Academic Director of the Leadership Institute at London Business School, believes they stand a better chance if they follow the seven frames of leadership  that define successful leaders of any kind.

1. Leadership is about the leader – what are the strengths and weaknesses of leaders and do they have the power to inspire people? 

2. Success depends on the situation – which situations play to a leader’s strengths? 

3. Hierarchy: why some make it to the top and others do not 

4. Leaders have the ability to leverage power – to get things done, leaders must generate and maximise their power.

5. Leaders have a strong and distinct vision – leaders need to motivate others by having a clear idea of where they want to take their group. 

6. Ethical leadership, for the good of the people – who embodies the group’s values and best interests? 

7. Leaders have belief and courage – do leaders possess the courage to act authentically?  

Meet the presidential candidates

For successful leaders, self-awareness is critical. Professor Peterson points to Sanders, who has been judged for his speaking skills. Some describe him as lacking a leading voice in the socialist community, despite being a self-identified democratic socialist. The media says he can be cantankerous and lacks charisma. 

“Sanders doesn’t really see himself how other people see him, which suggests his self-awareness is low. We see this with Trump, too. The difference with Trump is that yes, he doesn’t understand how people see him, but also, he doesn’t seem to care.”

Leaders have to be influential and persuasive, and play up any given situation. “Trump has played the situational frame extremely well,” says Professor Peterson. “Trump identified a significant group of people who were left out as globalisation took off. The upper end of the group benefited from globalisation and the lower group were undermined and displaced.” 

Political and business leaders must also make the most of their positional experience, according to Professor Peterson. The voters need to believe that the candidates have learned from experience and boast a CV that proves they can be president.

“In terms of strength and length of CV, Clinton makes a powerful argument. She’s been everything from US Secretary of State to US Senator, so she’s a strong candidate.” 

Professor Peterson says candidates who can draw on their prior expertise and remind stakeholders of their past accomplishments will gain voters’ trust and respect.

To get things done, leaders must leverage power, too. He says: “Trump epitomises an authoritarian leader. And he doesn’t hide it, Trump just says: ‘No negotiations, no working with other people: this is my opinion, this is my decision. We are the strongest country in the world, which means we are going to dictate to the world.’” 

Professor Peterson says that leaders need to have a clear vision to motivate others. “Clinton is trying to communicate her vision and has not been hugely successful in the way that, say, Sanders has been. His vision is not something that everyone agrees with, but it’s clear. And for many people it’s extremely compelling.”

Clinton, who once described herself as having the mind of a conservative and the heart of a liberal, takes a considered approach to her vision, but it centres broadly on equality. Sanders’s vision focuses on single-payer health care, the breakup of the six largest Wall Street banks, and significant tax increases.

“Clinton is drawing in a broad group, so much so, that people are sometimes critical. ‘Is she really taking a stand? Has she got a clear vision?’ they ask. 

“In contrast, Sanders has a clear vision. Clinton can’t afford to alienate people like that. So it’s a trade-off: do you target your vision broadly and bring lots of people with you? Or have you made your vision too broad so that no one follows you? That’s what’s playing out in the Democratic primaries. And Clinton’s almost certainly winning.” 

The most successful leaders appear to do what is best for the group and are willing to make personal sacrifices for them, according to Professor Peterson. He points to Clinton’s speech at the Iowa caucuses on 1 February, where she declared: “I will keep doing what I have done my entire life. I will keep standing up for you. I will keep fighting for you. I will always work to achieve the America that I believe in.”

“She was saying, ‘I’m doing my best, and I’m doing what I think is right for you’,” he says. 

Courage and authenticity are equally important traits for successful leaders. “In leadership roles, you have to make very difficult decisions and most people want to be led by a real human being, not someone that’s playing a role or wearing a mask. They want to know what the real human stands for and who they really are,” he says.

“The problem is, if you show authenticity and you’re a real human, and you put yourself out there and then nobody follows, the rejection is quite personal.”

The more a leader shows people their real values and what matters to them, the more vulnerable they become, and “the more courage they need”. 

So how should the US candidates balance the act of expressing their true beliefs versus being exposed to personal criticism? When should they put their protective masks on, and more importantly, when should they take them off? 

“Well, you have to take the mask off partially to win. But how much?” Only time will tell. 

About Randall S Peterson

Randall S Peterson is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Chair, Organisational Behaviour Faculty at London Business School. He is also Academic Director of the Leadership Institute.

He teaches on the following programmes: