What They Talked About When They Talked About Leadership

A leader needs a host of skills. So why do candidates talk about so few of them?

Tomorrow is Election Day, so this is the perfect time to talk about leadership.

Or is it? At this point, nearly everybody is exhausted by election talk. Though I haven’t (yet) descended into sobbing fits of exhaustion, young Abigael Evans sure has my sympathy — and on the evidence of nearly 11 million YouTube views, plenty of others’ as well.

As your president, I will take risks! said no candidate ever. But it’s an essential part of the job.

But indulge me one more bit of commentary, which isn’t so much about the men running for president but how they address leadership, how they define it as a meaningful skill.

My plan to study this wasn’t rigorously scientific, but I imagined it would be data-rich. I would look at the transcripts of the first, second, and third presidential debates and see how president Barack Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney used the word “leadership.”

In the first debate, the word “leadership” came up twice.

In the second debate, the word “leadership” came up four times.

Useable leadership tips were starting to look a little hard to come by.

But there was a huge spike in the third debate — it came up 33 times. It’s hard to explain why. The last debate covered foreign policy, so perhaps the candidates felt the need to project leadership a bit more; because it was the final debate, maybe they were in a mad dash to assert their leadership bona fides.

But though the word came up a lot, overall the candidates used it in just two contexts:

1. Leadership is decisiveness. “Part of leadership and governing is both saying what it is that you are for, but also being willing to say no to some things,” the president said in the first debate; he returned often to the theme of firm resolve.

2. Leadership is flexibility. “We haven’t had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis,” the former governor said in the second debate; similarly, he often invoked his reach-across-the-aisle capacity.

Small wonder the electorate is split down the middle. Voters are asked to choose between two essential skills, which are unfortunately framed as two divergent skills. Decisiveness and flexibility aren’t either/or options for a successful leader. You need both. And you need much more, skills that weren’t discussed much in the debates: Strategic thinking, data analysis, hiring and firing, taking risks. “As your president, I will take risks!” said no candidate ever. But it’s an essential part of the job.

I don’t want to court a food fight in the comments by asking which candidate better demonstrates leadership; then, surely, my inner Abigael Evans will be unleashed. But I do want to know what you as an association leader see as essential aspects of leadership, and how well you think those aspects were discussed by the candidates. Is there a serious, nuanced discussion about leadership in election season? If so, who’s having it?


(photo by Neon Tommy/Flickr)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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