Leadership Factors That Will Make or Break the Great Debate

clinton-trumpOn Monday night, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will have their first presidential debate.  It’s expected to be the most watched debate in U.S. history.

For those of us in organizational leadership roles, the debate (no matter what your political leanings) offer an opportunity to observe and talk shop about how people view potential leaders.

A recent Reuters poll found that 82% of Americans have already made up their minds about who they will vote for.  For those in this camp, the debate is mostly about validation. If you’ve already chosen sides, watching the debate will only help you to reinforce your preexisting selection.

The undecided 18% will be tuning in for help.  They’ll be trying to discern which candidate to vote for.  Ironically, their final choice on Election Day will have very little to do with actual politics.  Debates (and campaigns) are not won or lost on the basis of explanations of policy platforms.  That’s “head” stuff.

This seems to defy logic.   From a logical point of view, it seems that people ought to vote for the person who will best represent their interests.

But logic doesn’t run the show when it comes to making choices.  People use something far more powerful than a cognitive list of pros and cons to make decisions.  They go with their gut.

Leadership is a relationship: a primal, human relationship.  When people select leaders, they rely on their intuition and emotional intelligence to meet a few basic underlying needs.     In the relationship between leader and follower, three things must happen:

  1. People must know their leaders.
  2. People must like their leaders.
  3. People must trust their leaders.

To lead effectively, these three attributes are your cost of entry.  They help you to establish  your leadership credibility.

Monday’s debate is not a political contest.  It’s a credibility contest.   The “winner” is the one who will be perceived as being the most credible.

Credibility comes from the latin word credere: to believe.  We want to believe in our leaders: what they say, what they do, and who they are.

Credibility is won in our hearts, not our heads.   The debate is a forum for each candidate to take us on an emotional journey.  Which candidate moves you? Inspires you? Comforts you?  Makes you feel better about the future?  Each debate interaction that you experience adds to a collective leadership impression that ultimately tilts the balance one way or the other.

For most observers, deciding who is credible and who is not happens at the subconscious level. They’ll just “feel better” about one candidate over the other.  However, for those of us who study leadership and keep wanting to develop our leadership effectiveness, there’s a lot of value in analyzing the elements of leadership credibility.

There are three dimensions of credibility that a leader can demonstrate:

  1. Who they are (character)        
  2. What they say (competence)   
  3. What they do (commitment)

While all three are important, character will be the dimension most on display in the debate setting on Monday night.  Here are four key attributes of character that will determine whether or not the candidates are seen as credible.

  1. Honesty

Honesty is considered the most important of all the leadership qualities.   This makes sense: it forms the foundation of trust, which is the glue of human relationships.  When trust is absent, credibility disappears.

The psychologist Paul Ekman, author of Why Kids Liehas studied non-verbal communication patterns.  He’s discovered something called Micro Expressions, super-quick facial expressions that last less than a second.  These micro expressions can tip us off to when someone is concealing a feeling.  Our brains don’t register this tip-off, but our guts do.  This is why we experience a “something seems off about them” sense with people who are not honest with us.

Honesty comes out of personal integrity.  One definition of integrity is the state of being whole. If someone is in integrity, their whole being (body language, voice, words, and deeds) are all in alignment.  On Monday night, each viewer will be watching to see if those elements are aligned in each of the candidates.  If you sense a lack of integrity, you’ll feel it, and that leader’s credibility will decrease in your eyes.

2. Poise/Calm

When people talk about a candidate “appearing presidential”, they’re referring to one’s poise and sense of calmness.   Does the candidate appear confident?  Do they bring a sense of gravitas that could take on the responsibility?  How do they respond when they are attacked by the other candidate or by the moderator?  How do they react to any potential gaffes?

Authentic leadership confidence follows from a track record of competence.  When people are competent, they’ve done something many times.  As such, they develop a sense of relaxation in their efforts. When the leader relaxes, the followers can relax and trust more.  Followers’ antennae are attuned to this competence, and leaders who demonstrate this trait score big credibility points.

3. Straightforward-looking

A leader needs to have (and communicate) a clear and compelling vision for the future. Where do they want to take us?  How will we get there?  How will they deal with the obstacles on the path?

In communicating their vision, do they speak in a simple, clear, and easy to follow way? Do they speak like a person, or like a politician?  Do they answer the question on the table, or do they bend and shape their reply to digress to another subject?   Are they in the moment, or do they default to their stump speech talking points?

People will trust those they can understand.  If a leader obfuscates, tap dances, and avoids clarity, they will be experienced as less than credible.

4. Genuine Care

The best leaders know that “It’s not about me.”  Does the candidate show an authentic concern about others?  Do they start every sentence with “I” or “We”?    Do they show a sense of real empathy for the plight of those in need?

Based on our neurobiology, we humans are designed to be open looped.  That is, we pick up on the emotions of others.  If a leader shows they care, we feel it.  If they don’t care, we also feel it.   When leaders care, it helps followers to feel hope and inspiration.  These feelings translate into building a leader’s credibility.

Ultimately, leadership is a relationship of human-to-human experience.   Humans are primarily feeling creatures (that also happen to think.)  As a leader, appealing to emotional needs first makes sense.  After all, you can have the best policies and ideas in the world, but if you don’t get people believing in you, all of your good ideas will go nowhere.

Credibility is the basis of leadership.  Focusing first on relationships: demonstrating honesty, poise/calm, straightforward-looking, and genuine care — is the platform on which all future leadership and organizational success is built.

What other qualities do you think improve a leader’s credibility?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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