What Leaders Can Learn from How Romney Won the Debate October 4 2012

Almost immediately after the first U.S. presidential debate on Wednesday, practically every major news outlet from Fox News to MSNBC to the Financial Times of London declared Mitt Romney the outright winner over Barack Obama.   Having watched it myself, I have to agree.  Romney cleaned Obama’s clock.

As I was watching it, I thought of that scene in The Untouchables where Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness says to Sean Connery’s Malone, “I want to get Capone.  I don’t know how to do it.”  Malone gets in Ness’s grill and snarls back, “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone.”  Romney played the role of Malone at the debate.  He brought the firepower.

Thinking that there might be a leadership lessons blog post in there somewhere, I took a couple of pages of notes during the debate about my impressions.  Both men’s performances demonstrated the adage that it’s not so much what you say as how you say it.  Even with two pages of notes, I couldn’t tell you a whole lot about the substance of what either candidate said.  The impressions that landed were about who was in command and who had a plan.  On those fronts, Romney won going away.

While most leaders don’t find themselves in one on one debates in front of an audience very often, there are broader leadership communication lessons that can be drawn from both Romney’s and Obama’s performances.

Herewith, some points on how Romney won the debate and what leaders can learn from how he did it:

Have a game plan:  In watching the entire debate, it was clear Romney had a game plan coming in and he executed it for the full 90 minutes.  Obama, on the other hand, appeared to be improvising.  There were a lot of pre-debate media stories about how many weeks Romney had spent preparing for the first debate.  It looked like they were right.  He proved that preparation pays.

Remember the rule of first impressions:  What percentage of Americans do you figure are paying attention in the 80th minute of a debate?  Somewhere between slim and none would be my guess.  In a debate as in any other presentation, first impressions are critical.  Romney had a  very clear idea of the impression he wanted to make from the opening hand shake forward.  I’m not even a Romney supporter and found him coming across as smart, articulate, energetic and appropriately passionate.  I don’t think any of that was an accident.  Romney had a clear picture of the impression he wanted to leave and followed through on it.

Know the points you want to make:  Obama got to go first with his opening statement and I thought he had a good line about it’s not where we’ve been but where we’re going.  Then Romney opened with a couple of stories about people he’s met on the campaign trail who have asked, “Can you help me?” and then ticked off a five point plan for how he’d help those people by improving the economy.  It wasn’t so much what was in the five point plan as the fact that he had a five point plan and delivered it within the two minute time constraint.  He came across as more specific and action oriented as a result.

Illustrate those points with stories that connect:  Throughout the debate, Romney illustrated his points with short stories about real people living through what he was talking about.  Relevant stories get the listener’s attention and Romney played that to the hilt.  While Romney was talking about real people struggling with thousands of dollars, Obama, talked about trillions of dollars of revenues and expenditures.  Effective communicators use stories and examples that the average person can relate to.

Sum those points up with memorable phrases:  There was a lot of pre-debate speculation about whether or not Romney would come in with a collection of zingers like Reagan’s classic, “There you go again.”  He didn’t really deploy a lot of zingers but what he did do was repeat and emphasize his major points with short memorable phrases like “my priority is putting people back to work in this country,” “trickle down government,” and “$716 billion in cuts to Medicare.”  Leaders have to make it easy for people to remember what they want them to remember.  Well crafted turns of phrase repeated regularly help a lot.

Play offense:  Romney played offense throughout the debate.  He made his points clearly and repeatedly and put Obama in a position of having to respond to what he said.  Obama seemed to show up without a plan to take the fight to Romney.  It was remarkable that in a debate about domestic economic issues, Obama did not raise the video tape of Romney saying that it wasn’t his job to worry about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal taxes.   Given the fact that he’s such a basketball aficionado, it’s surprising that Obama didn’t play offense.  You have to put points on the board to win the game.

Energy above all:  Finally, Romney won the debate with energy.  He was amped (at some points almost over amped) throughout the evening.  In the split screen shots, you could see that he was almost always directing his remarks straight at Obama.  Obama, on the other hand, spent most of his time addressing the moderator.  The problem, of course, is that he’s not running against Jim Lehrer, he’s running against Mitt Romney.  To communicate effectively, leaders have to show through their body language, their tone of voice and their energy level that they’re engaged.  Romney did.  Obama not so much.

History shows that incumbent Presidents often have poor performances in their first debates and then come back strong in subsequent performances.  It will be interesting to see what happens in the next two debates.

In the meantime, what’s your take on the performances at the first debate?  What leadership communications lessons did you see? 

26 Responses to “What Leaders Can Learn from How Romney Won the Debate”

  1. Jenny Tucker says:

    Terrific points in a terrific post. I think another leadership point here might be: Every hour is a choice. Much has been made of the amount of time Romney spent on prep for this debate, knowing its importance to him. In the meantime, Obama’s been running a country. I, for one, am grateful that Obama chose that over debate prep. Only time, though, will tell if that was the right choice. THAT is the kind of choice leaders must make every day.

    • Al Godbout says:

      Good point, if it were true. For the last 4 years, Obama has supposedly running the country, when in fact, he's taken a lot of time doing other things. If he had been so busy running the country, he should have been able to fire back effective answers from experience without much prep. He should also be well versed on what didn't work in the last 4 years and what he is doing about it, not hopeing we'll give him another 4 years to make things from bad to worse. It seems apparent that the job is above his capabilities.

    • Bob S says:

      Mr. Obama chose to CAMPAIGN rather than prepare, not “run the country”. If you would have listened to the Democratic pundits on CNN after the debate, you would have heard even their “surprise” regarding his anemic and shallow responses. If he wasn’t prepared to answer these simple anticipated questions after being in office for four years, without preparation, we certainly are in trouble.

  2. As one who follows your posts, I am consistently impressed with your insights. But how well you were able to think through the points you wanted to make in this blog post, write and edit it so effectively, and publish it within less than 24 hours of the event, raises my appreciation of you to an even higher level than it is already.

    Thanks for all that I learn from you.


    David Lambert, Ph.D. @LearningProf

  3. Ken H says:

    It's a three round boxing match with a sudden death playoff at the end! First round to Romney!

  4. SpiritMentor says:

    You make some good points about have a more cohesive strategy. But what was The President's strategy? Could it possibly have been that the first debate is less important than the last one? Could it be that his strategy was not to actually listen to the points and stories that Mr. Romney was making? Could it have been to let all the "teachable moment" opportunities slip by? Could it have been to not engage in any challenges to Mr. Romney's character and changing viewpoints?" It's a puzzle as to what it could have been, but whatever it was it wasn't "presidential" and seemed to have failed to demonstrate the leadership that his followers and his detractors have come to expect.

  5. CMUP says:

    The golden rule is to be prepared no matter what the task is. Obviously he is an experct on unchallenge retoric speach but he is not used to being challenge with hard questioning or clarifying facts and that worked against him.

  6. Vit says:

    I don’t think anybody knows Obama’s plan. And it is not necessary to win this debates to win the presidency. I, personally, don’t care how pushy Mitt is. But if I know his record of saying certain things and promises that he will not be able to deliver, then he is not a leader for me. And it would not be his win for me. And not Obama’s either. A leader should be the promise deliverer and not just hope giver.

  7. Bob S says:

    One must be able to articulate one’s ideas in order to be effective and appear credible. The inability to do so is either from the lack of a plan, absence of facts or an inability to communicate. Mr. Obama has been praised as a great communicator. The conclusion is obvious.

  8. Nancy says:

    Though good points in your post I'm afraid it is telling us that leadership is about false perceptions, made up stories, buzz words and false statements and not vision, strategy and consistency in beliefs and true self, which reminds me the Enron type CEOs that have put our country on the brink of collapse

    • @TJsMind says:

      Great point Nancy. Leaders need to tell the truth, otherwise they are just used car salesmen. Romney said a lot and sounded great. But the car he's trying to sell – his candidacy – it's a clunker.

  9. Marie says:

    As a leader I think this was an excellent article. Many times, we in leadership roles think we can wing it but this reminds us of the time tested principals that we sometimes forget: have a plan, make your first impression count; practice; stay on message and deliver the story in a way that is authentic and human. While reading it I found myself critiquing my latest presentation and think I could do better next time with this reminder.

  10. Unfortunately, our nation continues to value impression and image over actual substance. The analysis of the debate should now focus on the level of “truth” communicated by the two debaters. Who made statements that were inconsistent with their previous position, who twisted the facts to meet their immediate needs, who can be trusted to implement a strategy that will in fact result in a better America for the future. What we need is authentic and collaborative leadership not politics as usual.
    Michael Lomax
    Strategic Leadership Systems, LLC

    • @TJsMind says:

      Well said Michael. If I stood in front of my employees and took positions that contradicted what I had said to them previously, then even if I looked great and sounded great, I'd lose their confidence and support; we would be less productive as a team. To lead, a leader has to be viewed not only as someone who is polished, but as someone who is credible. BOTH matter; appearances do matter. NEITHER should be sacrificed. But credibility, that's the one that's hard to restore once its broken.

  11. Mary Jurek says:

    Obama looked weak.

  12. newjerseyartfan says:

    I believe it is precisely the level of preparation and effective communication that really demonstrates the difference between these two candidates: Romney is a leader, and Obama is not. Obama might be extremely well educated; but his record (inability to negotiate & win consensus with opposition) AND his dismal performance at his "job interview" expose his lack of qualifications to be President (he might be better suited for a think tank or cabinet position – but not the highest executive position). He just really lack's executive skill.

  13. H Muir says:

    While Rommney may have communicated better than Obama – that does not mean it was leadership worth noting. Too often I find (after 20 years spent in leadership development) that leaders just want to "look like" or "sound like" a leader. Leadership is more than speaking and making an impression. How many of Rommney's statements were lies or contradicted his previous positions? Plenty (see indpendent source – http://factcheck.org/2012/10/dubious-denver-debat…. Great leadership doesn't happen or rarely is observed in a single interaction. What we can learn from the debates is not to be easily impressed by "style" and not label someone as a worthy leader by a single observation. A worth characteristic of leadership is "consistency over time". . I'll reserve any conclusion about worthy leadership until after I've observed the next two debates as well as the candidate's actions and positions

    • SAM says:

      Mr. Muir- weak. since you've been in leadership development for 20 years I assume you understand the concept of track record. Mitt Romney's record of leadership speaks for itself. It showed in debate. What is Obama's claim to fame? Strong arming and ignoring the other side … you call that leadership? If you've been in leadership industry for 20 years you saw at least 20 years worth of difference in leadership ability at the debate. Any true leader can see the obvious difference. Obama was exposed for what he is … a master of deception and finger pointing. You call that leadership?

    • Bob S says:

      You are correct that sounding or looking like a leader alone will not garner respect nor lead to accomplishments over time. Leadership is bringing others along to effectuate a plan, hopefully beneficial. Our President has not shown this ability. To your point, and contrary to your implied conclusion relating to leadership, he has shown “consistency over time”, which has not led to consistent meaningful outcomes. This is not a way to define leadership ability. Mr. Obama has indeed “dressed up” sounding and looking like a leader, as opposed to truly possessing the real qualities that achieve results.

    • newjerseyartfan says:

      Agreed, but debate performance combined with Romney's solid record of business success, and ability to lead opposition (Massachusetts, trust me – I used to live there) I think without a doubt gives him the advantage in executive skill & experience.

  14. Paula Boggs says:

    You nailed it. I'm a strong Obama supporter and agree with every point you made. The problem for Romney over the next 30+ days is defending the myriad fantasy statements he made 2 nights ago. A legitimate leader has a plan that actually works in more than sound bites!

  15. oxymoran says:

    I cringed throughout the debate. Just awful to see the man who holds the position of President of these United States be humiliated like that. The poor man's got a tough job to do without that other guy relentlessly rubbing his nose in the dirt for 60 minutes.

    I would personally hate to have a review of my job performance, live on TV in front of 60 million people…particularly if my performance had been a little disappointing. I wish President Obama better luck in the next two rounds.

    • KBenton says:

      If we think of it as a review of job performance – then the debate is the perfect forum since, in essence, the voters are who the President reports to.

  16. Luke C. Ng says:

    I think we should stick with the discussion topic rather than airing political views in this space.

    Evaluating the 1st debate performance, one major difference is "Passion" between candidates. Romney clearly made his points passionately while the president never showed any energy throughout the debate. This might send out the unspoken signal ( body language, right or wrong ) that he was not confident in what he was saying.

    A business leader must inspire confidence by demonstrating passion.
    If the boss is not passionate about his/her plans, how could he/she expect trust from investors, employees and suppliers ?
    The old adage "monkey see, monkey do" comes to mind.

    Luke Ng
    Executive in Residence
    Zarb Business School
    Hofstra University, NY

  17. Steven says:

    the forgotten point in all this is that Obama might have gotten away with the favorably sympathy from the middle and majority of democrats… which will consolidate his base's passion

  18. LaWanda says:

    If I cant trust my leader to be honest and consistent, I would not be able to consider him to be a true "leader" and I would not be able to respect his role. How many of us really want to be "bullied" at work? How many of us really want to be over powered when we are presenting ideas, how many of us want to be interuppted when we are trying to make a point? If my superior acted the way Mr. Romney did at the debate….I would be looking for another job!

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