Randall S Peterson
Professor of Organisational Behaviour
The presidential candidates are in the final lap towards power. As it stands, the Democrats' Hillary Clinton is head to head with the Republicans' Donald Trump, and whoever wins must help the US navigate a cache of challenges, from the economy to security, healthcare to the environment. Each candidate has a different background, character, set of skills and vulnerabilities.
Political leaders face different challenges to those on the corporate stage. But whether a leader is operating in business or politics, Professor Peterson cites seven frames of leadership that affect every leader's ability to appeal to stakeholders.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of leaders and do they have the power to inspire people? “It’s about how self-aware you are as an individual,” says Professor Peterson.
This originates from the idea that people are just born leaders. But this concept is outdated and has evolved over time to something more advanced: every leader has an array of skills, the question is whether the individual knows they possess them.” The point he makes is this: does the leader know how to bring skills, such as story-telling and decision-making, to the fore?
Take the Democrat's earlier candidate Bernie Sanders, who was judged for his speaking skills. Some said he lacked a leading voice in the socialist community, despite being a self-identified democratic socialist, while the media often thought him cantankerous and lacking charisma.
Professor Peterson says: “Sanders didn’t really see himself how other people saw him, which suggests his self-awareness was 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.”
This core understanding of the leader’s self underpins the next six frames.
What situations play to a leader’s strengths? It is not a case of “right person, right time”, according to Professor Peterson. “If you’re self-aware in the first instance, you’ll know which situations are likely to play to your strengths.”
Leaders have to be influential and persuasive, and play up any given situation. “Trump played the situational frame extremely well,” he says. “Trump identified a significant group of people left out as globalisation took off. The upper end of the group benefited from globalisation and the lower group were undermined and displaced.
As he says, “This plays out in the UK too. The North of England was originally big in industry and manufacturing, but globalisation has seen such industries leave the area, whereas financial services in the south, have done extremely well. In the US it's not a regional issue.”
In this frame, the candidates built their campaigns around shifting environmental circumstances.
People at the top have more opportunities to showcase their leadership, but when organisational hierarchy is not yet established, background and experience is key.
Professor Peterson points to the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once said: “You only get to the top rung on the ladder by steadily climbing up one at a time, and suddenly all sorts of powers and abilities which you thought never belonged to you – become your own possibility.” He says leaders must make the most of their positional experience.
“It’s that experience of having accomplished things that’s important, I remember George W Bush running for president. People cried, ‘No one has ever been as prepared to be president as him because he’s already had such significant jobs,’ and it was quite a persuasive argument.
“In terms of strength and length of CV, Clinton made a powerful argument. She’s been everything from US Secretary of State to US Senator. She's a strong candidate in this frame.”
If the candidates can draw on their prior expertise and remind stakeholders of their past accomplishments, they will be able to steadily climb to the top.
To get things done, leaders must generate and maximise their power. “Who has more power than their official position suggests?” asks Professor Peterson.
“The person who gets power is the one who’s in charge and the person who gets things done.”
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.’ Simply, ‘We are the strongest country in the world which means we are going to dictate to the world.’”
Power comes from a collection of the first three frames: “Self-awareness, situation and position.” Professor Peterson points to Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the US, who said: “Leadership is the ability to get people to do what they don’t like to do and like it.”
“We saw the candidates leverage power in the teams that surrounded them and in the people that followed them. Their success depended on their ability to communicate a clear vision.”
Leaders need to motivate others by having a clear idea of where they want to take their group. The ability to communicate a vision that resonates with people is an imperative skill.
“At one point, Clinton had not been hugely successful in communicating her vision, unlike Sanders. His vision, though not something everyone agreed with, was clear – and for many people, extremely compelling.”
Clinton, who once described herself as having the mind of a conservative and the heart of a liberal, took a considered approach to her vision, which centred broadly on equality. Some say that she was overly cautious in her statements on issues including the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what the federal minimum wage should be. For this reason, she was accused of lacking a singular vision.
“Clinton has drawn in a broad group, so much so, that people are critical. ‘Is she really taking a stand? Has she got a clear vision?’” Sanders’ vision focused on single-payer health care, the breakup of the six largest Wall Street banks, and significant tax increases.
“Sanders had a clear vision. Clinton couldn’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 played out in the Democratic primaries and Clinton won the nomination.”
Having a vision that appeals to people underpins the next frame.
This point is about a leader’s desire and ability to make decisions for the good of the group. “Who embodies the group’s values and best interests?” asks Professor Peterson.
“The most successful leaders appear to do what is just and best for the group and are willing to make personal sacrifices for them.” 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’”. Clinton’s consistent message was on leaving a better country to voters’ children and grandchildren. She made the most of her own experiences as a mother and grandmother to appeal to voters.
In contrast, Republican candidate Cruz held conservative views on nearly every issue, from favouring tax reforms to replacing Obamacare and from opposing climate-change regulations to curbing energy production. Nevertheless, Professor Peterson says Cruz executed a vision for the good of the group: “Cruz appealed to his conservative followers.”
To execute a vision that is judged and scrutinised widely, to the benefit of the group, takes courage – the final frame.
“Authentic leadership is about having the courage to be yourself, the willingness to put yourself at risk when you are needed by your group, and the ability to harness your position and power in order to take your group to a better place,” he says.
The concept is split into three parts:
1. As a leader, who are you, and what are your core beliefs?
2. Where do you want to take your group?
3. Why should your group be led by you?
“The last frame is about courage and authenticity. 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, who they really are.
“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.”
Enter the idea of courage. 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.
The US candidates had to decide whether balancing their true beliefs was worth being exposed to personal criticism.
“Well you have to take the mask off partially to win. But how much? Clinton has been in the spotlight for 30 years. We saw moments where she has partly let her mask slip, but it was reeled in fairly quickly because it was just too painful. Trump has some real pain in his history, and he acted the way he’s learnt to over years: to strike back. He was courageous in his defence and used it as a way of diffusing personal attacks on his values. The problem is that during the elections, he fought back against the weak and vulnerable.”
All leadership carries perils. "Politics is difficult,"concludes Professor Peterson. “Frame seven is the perfect place for people to stick the knife in your back. Unlike in corporate life, where in many cases leaders find ways to stop intrusion at a high level, in politics your personal beliefs are always made public and always scrutinised.
“That’s why people underappreciate the difficulty of leadership in politics.”
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