How Coakley and Brown Pulled Defeat from the Jaws of Victory and Vice Versa: What Leaders Can Learn

Posted 01.20.2010

One of the most fun aspects of my work as an executive coach is the opportunity to work in a lot of different organizations. I enjoy observing what’s different and similar in the various cultures. One thing that’s more or less the same everywhere is that most people profess a distaste for “politics.”  The only problem with that is that there is always politics and if you’re going to make a difference, you have to successfully deal with it. When you get down to it, politics is about influencing people to do something. If you’re a leader, you’re doing that every day, all day long.

Another thing I like is elections. One of the reasons I like elections is that on a given day the outcome of all the politics becomes crystal clear. Someone wins and someone loses. There’s usually a lot more ambiguity in organizational politics.

Scottbrown1 So, this week in Massachusetts, we had a crystal clear political outcome when Republican state senator Scott Brown roared out of nowhere to beat the Democrat state attorney general Martha Coakley to win the US Senate seat that had been held for 46 years by the late Ted Kennedy. Just a month ago, Coakley was the overwhelming favorite to win the race.  In the last ten days, Brown closed the gap and ended up Marthacoakley1with a decisive win of 52% to 47% of the votes. 

Brown influenced more people to vote for him than Coakley did for her. How did he pull victory from the jaws of defeat? How did she do the opposite? What can leaders who need to influence people day in and day out learn from these two?  Here are three lessons from each:

How to Pull Defeat from the Jaws of Victory –

Assume Entitlement: Coakley’s approach to the campaign suggested that, as the Democratic candidate, she viewed herself as the heir apparent to Ted Kennedy.  Far from answering the question, “What have you done for me lately?,” she didn’t really answer a more basic question, “What are you going to do?”  Leaders who want to influence people have to consistently do the work that matters to people.  Memories are short.  You have to work and keep working.

Phone It In: Coakley literally went on a vacation during the campaign. As Kathleen Parker notes in her latest column, Coakley asked if she was really expected to stand outside Fenway Park in the freezing cold to shake hands with voters. If you want to influence people, you have to demonstrate that you’re a leader who doesn’t just do the basics. You need to show that you enjoy doing the basics.

Disconnect: If you’re campaigning in Massachusetts, you don’t, as Coakley did, suggest that former Red Sox ace Curt Schilling is secretly a Yankees fan. Effective leaders establish a genuine connection with the people they lead. That includes striking the right notes on seemingly inconsequential things like what they’re passionate about outside of their work life.

How to Pull Victory from the Jaws of Defeat –

Pay Attention: Brown tapped into the independent voters’ concern and discontent with what they view as a continuation of the same old, same old in Washington. He said he was running for the people’s seat, not Ted Kennedy’s seat. Leaders who influence pay attention to and work with what people are most concerned about.

“Work the Room”: You could argue that it was optics, but Brown “worked the room,” very effectively.  He drove himself around the state to campaign in an old pickup truck with 200,000 miles on it.  He wore a work jacket.  He spoke in plain language. By doing all of that, he established an emotional connection with the people he was trying to influence. Whatever your “room” is as a leader, if you want to influence people to your position, you have to work it in a way that connects with them.

Have a Message: Brown tapped into the majority’s opposition to the health care reform bill by referring to himself as 41. His point was that he would be the 41st vote in the Senate against the bill thereby breaking the 60 vote supermajority the Democrats needed to push it through. That is some simple, memorable and highly effective messaging. If you want to influence people as a leader, you have to have a message that resonates and is easy for people to get their mind around.

What’s your take? How do you navigate the political environment of your organization? What do you do to influence others while staying true to your values?