Leadership Questions Raised by the 2009 Elections

Posted 11.04.2009

Ap-voters The morning after election day 2009 was probably not a particularly fun one in the White House. As noted in a first rate summary by John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin in Politico, the outcomes of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races and even the New York City’s mayor race didn’t really go the President’s way. As an historical analysis by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post points out, it’s important to not over interpret the results,  but one thing about the 2009 election results does seem clear. Voters who identify themselves as independents are looking for  leaders who seem to address the issues that are most important to them. 

As an example, since I live in Virginia, I had a pretty direct line of sight into the governor’s race here.  The winner, Bob McDonnell, ran a very effective straight down the middle campaign centered on jobs, transportation, taxes and government spending. His opponent, Creigh Deeds, seemed to never get any traction on explaining exactly what his priorities would be if he was governor. (See Dan Balz's post election analysis in the Washington Post for more on this.)

In connecting the dots on the different races, I find myself looking for some common denominator lessons we can learn about effective leadership communications.  After all, that’s what a campaign is ultimately about.  In reviewing this week’s results, I’ve come up with four questions that I think leaders need to address either implicitly or explicitly if they hope to win over their followers. These strike me as important questions for any leader – not just political candidates – to address when they’re attempting to mobilize people in a challenging situation. Here are the questions:

Who are you?   – As I wrote earlier this week, followers make up stories about leaders.  One of the first jobs of a leader is to define the terms of the story by answering the question, “Who is this guy or gal?”  In Virginia, Bob McDonnell put a lot of time and effort into providing his own answer to that question – a moderate, reasonable guy concerned about the economy and transportation. Creigh Deeds on the other hand spent most of his time and attention trying to define Bob McDonnell and very little time defining himself for the voters. The result was a 18% defeat for Deeds. As a leader, you have to have a story about yourself that connects with people.

So what? – Closely related to the “Who is this guy?” question is the “So what?” question. The leaders who are most successful in mobilizing followers are tuned into the “So what?” question and address that in their messaging.  In a low turnout election, the winners did a better job of answering, “So what?”  For McDonnell in Virginia, it was transportation and jobs. For Christie in New Jersey, it was property taxes and a long term culture of corruption. Simple, focused messages that address a real “So what?” usually win the day.

Do you respect me? – One of the biggest surprises of election day was that New York mayor Mike Bloomberg won by a very thin margin after spending $100 million of his own money against a relatively unknown and underfunded candidate. (Politico has the story.) You could argue that his narrow victory was a message that the voters didn’t feel respected by Bloomberg after he had term limits overturned and acted as if he was entitled to the office. People don’t want to feel taken for granted. They want to feel respected.   Likewise, the reaction to Jon Corzine’s television ads implying that Chris Christie was too fat to be governor probably left a lot of people besides Chris Christie feeling disrespected. 

How does the drama help me? – I’m exposing my mega political junkie mode here, but the outcome of the 23rd congressional district election in New York was pretty interesting to me.  As reported in Politico, this is the one where the nominee of the Republican party was deemed by Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and others to not be conservative enough to bear the mantle. She was forced out and threw her support to the Democrat in the race who eventually won over the conservative third party candidate who assumed full GOP support when the original nominee dropped out. Got all that?  Anyway, I can’t help but wonder if the voters in the 23rd, were sending a message that they don’t have a lot of time for and interest in the drama.  I think the message for leaders generally might be to focus on the things that really matter to people.   When all the drama is stripped away, you still have to have a good answer to “So what?”