LESSONS FOR POLITICAL AND CORPORATE LEADERS FROM THE US ELECTION CAMPAIGN
By David Imber and Ozan Ibrisim
November 1, 2020
The election is not over yet. But let’s face it, things are not going well for President Trump.
Based on everything we’re reading, it’s pointing to a potential electoral college result with a 3 in front of it for Joe Biden.
So how did we get here and why is President Trump in this position? And what lessons are there to be learnt?
It’s the Pandemic Stupid, or is it?
In January, even considering the imperfections of the metrics, the US economy was relatively strong. It seemed that almost every card-carrying member of the Democratic Party and more were running for the primary, which at that point didn’t look like producing any clear and credible alternative to President Trump. There was talk of defeatism among some Democrats and hairy chested rhetoric from Trump supporters.
President Trump has never been a traditional politician, but he has always been compelling personality in the realm of US politics and business. In 2016, he knew exactly who his audience was and delivered bite-sized messages on social media tailored to them. While at the same time holding masses of compelling rallies that many networks broadcasted live, which helped amplify his messages.
While many have commented on the factors behind President Trump’s 2016 victory, few have been as telling as the reasons that the very person he defeated has offered up. Hillary Clinton writes in her book titled What Happened;
‘’Usually when I meet people who are frustrated and angry, my instinctive response is to talk about how we can fix things. That’s why I spent so much time and energy coming up with new policies to create jobs and raise wages. But in 2016 a lot of people didn’t really want to hear about plans and policies. They wanted a candidate as angry as they were, and they wanted someone to blame. For too many, it was primarily a resentment election.”
There were obviously other factors; the consistent efforts by President Trump to create an alternative reality, the increasing partisanship in US politics he harnessed, the exhausting focus on Hillary’s emails and of course, the famous Comey letter.
But as public affairs professionals, for us the most important part of President Trump’s success was that he competently managed those things that were within his control. The electorate in the battleground states that won him the election wanted someone to share their anger and rage with, he made himself that person.
This didn’t happen by accident. He surrounded himself with astute and ruthlessly effective advisers, they read the resentment mood early on and crafted messages that were delivered in a disciplined way to the right audience. Everything else including the arguments about President Trump being racist, misogynist, unorthodox in his dealings proved to be a distraction for the Democrats and background noise for the angry voters in the battleground states.
There will always be headwinds and negative external events in politics and business, those factors that you have little control over. However, controlling the factors that are within your control can give you the clarity and ability to withstand these headwinds such as a once in a century pandemic.
But it’s not just the fact the world got hit with a pandemic that explains President Trump’s challenges. That has just put a spotlight on the fact that he had met his match and lost the ability to manage the factors that were within his control over the past four years. He lost discipline and abandoned many of his staff and allies along the way, which in turn affected his clarity and resulted in his monumental misreading of the mood in the past few months. This ultimately meant that he fell apart when he was hit with a very strong headwind.
President Trump approached a health crisis with a political mindset and political PR solutions. The anger that he so astutely picked up and capitalized on in 2016 was and is still a feature of America. The big difference this time around is that through his actions and as a sitting Commander in Chief, he made himself the main target of this anger. He has become the political pinata that he so masterfully turned Hillary Clinton into in 2016 with the Democrats now leading a long line of people (many of them former and even current Republicans) taking political pot-shots.
So what does this all mean?
Whether you are in politics or in the corporate world, you never know when the next strong headwinds and when crisis may hit.
Besides the key take away; don’t lose control of the things that are ultimately within your control, there are a few other lessons for leaders;
Don’t surround yourself with people who tell you what you want to hear. Always listen and take advise from experts and people who are telling you the truth.
President Trump is notoriously relational. He is a hands-on business man and likes to do handshake deals and surround himself with a coterie of people who see the world as he does. He’s not alone in operating that way- in many cases, business used to be filled with “people like us” usually other similarly educated men of the same background.
Yet what makes you comfortable doesn’t always make you successful. Modern management theory encourages diversity for good reason- the more diverse the ideas, and the people delivering them, the more likely you are to be able to plan and achieve your goals. The same people won’t always give you the same ideas. Yet to surround yourself with ideologues and family members is likely to lead to an environment where poor decisions are the norm.
Don’t double down on bad ideas just because they are yours – be agile. What got you to this point won’t necessarily get you further
We’ve all been there. You’ve been lauded as part of a winning team or worked on a strategy or idea that achieved its objectives. You feel good, the organisation feels good, and you’re patted on the back. So no surprise that when the next issue that looks similar comes about everyone looks to you to repeat the miracle. And sometimes you can. But not always.
President Trump wanted to continue his winning strategy to energise his base but faced with (medical) facts that he didn’t like he didn’t change his approach. He didn’t move his campaigns or fundraisers online, he stayed put. In fact, he almost replicated the schedule of his rallies in the last two weeks of the 2016 campaign. He couldn’t (or didn’t want to) find a new way to operate- and after attacking Joe Biden for being “stuck in his basement” he actually doubled down so much he ended up hosting a super spreading event and getting coronavirus himself. Effectively, he just didn’t make the transition from a challenger, his strength in 2016, to an incumbent who should have taken control of the pandemic that has challenged political and business leaders around the globe.
You’re never too powerful to grow your base of support - you can never have too many friends
Kodak was a major company that was profitable for generations. It had competitors, but as the market leader it had enough brand power to withstand them. That didn’t help them when cameras became digital and every phone ended up having one, ultimately leading to their bankruptcy in 2012.
Like Kodak, President Trump had a base of support. His MAGA army has given him a massive floor of support. However, his unwillingness or inability to broaden his base of support means he also has a very low ceiling. When you are the market leader it can be tempting to believe you have more power than you do. Or that your power can last forever. Strong brands innovate, look to keep their customers while developing new markets. Strong leaders build their support base and in turn their grow their influence.
A two-horse race
At the end of the day, what matters most is who will get to the magic number of 270 electoral votes. Our focus has been on President’s Trump’s campaign but in a two-horse race either horse can win. If President Trump manages to pull it off again, there will be a whole set of separate lessons to also be learnt. In business, politics and sport you can sometimes sneak across the line after a sub-optimal performance. We wait to see.