How you perform in private and in public need to go hand in hand – it’s called integrity.

The first US Presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama was a fascinating example of the problem of public and private perception and performance. Mr. Obama has a flair for tightly worded dramatic readings of speeches. Filled with inspiring abstractions and rhetoric, they often get the blood pumping. Yet, to many Americans, he has failed to deliver on his promises (a book on the first year of his presidency was even called “The Promise”) and after his election quickly became aloof and condescending.

Mitt Romney, who has not laid claim to the same high levels of rhetoric and exposition, managed to floor President Obama in their first debate. He commanded the floor, had great command of detail, guided the proceedings, enumerated policy points, was warm, enthusiastic, responsive, clearly articulated his positions and was highly engaged with his opponent and the process; all areas where President Obama fell down. Yet Mr. Romney’s problem is his perceived “flip-flopping” on major positions. Whether this is from a lack of clear communication or from an actual propensity to blithely and expediently change opinion, I’m not one to say.

The problem for both candidates is their apparent willingness – or that of their campaign advisers and advertisers – to play fast and loose with facts. Truth has been a great casualty in this political battle.

I’m not judging either candidate as a person, nor am I commenting on their politics. As I’ve written before, I’m not even American – it’s not my election. (Nor do I want trolls adding their two cents worth – reading through comments such as one sees on the New York Times website, the level of invective and ignorance on both sides is astronomical.) As a standalone debating performance, however, there is a lot to learn from Mitt Romney’s “presidential” début.

Here are a few salient points:

  • Your level of verbal engagement with others is an indication of your respect not only for the individual, but for the audience.
  • Eye contact with those you are speaking with (and not just the camera) is so important to your perceived authenticity.
  • The microphone, and the camera, is always on. Never think your body language is unimportant. Don’t slouch behind the lectern, don’t look down the whole time someone is speaking to you. Smirks and derisive laughter are no substitute for cogent arguments.
  • Clearly articulated positions (e.g. there are five things I am going to do), are ultimately so much more effective than vague abstractions (e.g. we’re going to change the country).
  • If you can clarify, summarise and articulate someone else’s position better than they can (such that they are now nodding with you), you’re on a roll. If you can then either deconstruct or directly refute those positions, even better.
  • Don’t assume that your private preparation is adequate to the task. Rehearse in a focused way with someone at the appropriate level.
  • Don’t rely on hackneyed, over-used phrases and slogans when the other party is coming up with specifics.
  • Come to the party ready to rock. When you’re up in front of everyone, you’d better be ready to perform at the highest level you can. Phoning it in just won’t work.
  • If you’re beaten on the night, demonstrate your ability with the next encounter. Don’t go out to everyone else the next day complaining, “What I should have said was …. “
  • Don’t assume that you can now label the other team (leader, organisation, competitor, etc.) as having won just because that wasn’t “the real” person who showed up. Admit your defeat and take responsibility – that’s called integrity.
  • Leadership does require clear and powerful communication.

I’ll write in further posts about the credibility gaps in both communication and leadership and the issues they present, but it’s important to note that how the electorate views these individuals is impacted by their perceived integrity – and that means that they have to mean it when they say ‘No’ and mean it when they say ‘Yes’ and not allow the moment to change their values.

As leaders, we need to ensure that we passionately communicate our values, ideas and vision in a believable way. And that means that we need to live what we say we believe. We need to be honest with ourselves as well as with our constituents in order to keep their trust.

When Everyone’s Watching … Romney and Obama
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