What Does Leadership Look Like? Business Experts Would Say Obama Not Romney
Are Americans electing a salesman-in-chief or commander-in-chief on November 6th?
Polls taken since the first presidential debate suggest a lot of likely voters don’t know the difference, finding as The New York Times reported on Thursday that Romney projected more leadership qualities—even as liberals know he flat-out lied to 60 million viewers.
From the morning after analyses from sympathetic TV hosts—like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews with ex- San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown and Salon’s Joan Walsh, to the recent Times polling—one of the sad takeways is that style and appearance on TV matters more than standing by the facts and past stances.
As the presidential debates continue, the question of ‘what does leadership look like?’ looms large. This sounds trite, but it’s not. If you drill down into what corporate America's advisors say is required of executives today, the only choice would not be electing Romney—because he has few new ideas, isn’t offering a “new operating system,” and is more of a regressive than visionary figure.
But not everybody reads the business press on leadership today. Instead we have to start with a truth that liberals don’t like: that on TV, substance and facts take a back seat to appearance and performance. But if Biden and Obama are successful in their debates, they’ll remind voters that Romney’s remedies are no better than the pitches on Consumer Report’s latest list of scams.
What Does Leadership Look Like Today?
Let’s start with what it does not look like. “His tie was the wrong shade of blue, and his American flag lapel pin was way too small for the cameras,” Brown wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle on Sunday. “Small details for sure, but, like it or not, visuals and style will beat out substance every time in these televised debates.”
Brown told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews the same thing. “It’s very difficult to get people in the world observing politicians to come to the substance. They always go for style. They always go for performance.” Salon’s Joan Walsh went further and nailed Romney’s presentation, saying, “The most important thing to that man is closing a deal. He will say anything to close a deal.”
Matthews, like many AlterNet readers, was aghast. With almost half of the number of people who voted for president in 2008 watching, the TV host asked, how could Romney pretend to care about poor people, the middle class, and ignore almost everything that he has said on the campaign trail for months?
The answer, says Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy, quoted in a leadership advice piece from Inc. magazine, is because Romney—the ace salesman—knows what it means to strike a pose. “We know how leaders are supposed to look. They stand straight and tall. They are physically expansive, radiating confidence and power. In fact, taking on such physical attributes can actually make people feel more leader-ish,” Inc. said. In short, posture is power.
It wasn’t always this way, according to other business press articles on what leadership looks like. This BusinessNewsDaily piece says that leadership values have changed over the decades. In the 1940s and 1950s, when corporations and the wealthy paid a much fairer and larger share of taxes, leaders were seen as being task-oriented, participatory and relationship-oriented. By the mid-1970s, that list expanded, adding one’s capacities, achievements, status and the context of challenges faced. By 2000, Harvard Business Review was quoting psychologists who discussed differing styles: “commanding, visionary, ‘affiliative,’ democratic, pacesetting and coaching.”
Two weeks ago, Forbes was giving advice on what's new in today’s successful executives. That report said being “charismatic or commanding” was out, while “reframing” and putting a “new operating system… in place” was in, as was having a deep understanding of how the U.S. and global middle class is changing and responding to it, including how U.S. discretionary income was shrinking.
Leadership is not being a salesman repackaging old ideas or rejecting new ones, such as gutting Obamacare, sustaining the Bush era tax cuts for the wealthy, spending billions on weapons systems that the military doesn’t want, or reverting to an America where women had far fewer reproductive rights or contraceptive options, and so on.
But the question emerges: will Obama and Biden convey to Americans watching them debate on TV that the next president should not be an old school salesman-in-chief but a forward-looking commander who has insights and plans to navigate today’s issues?
As the Times reports, the choice facing voters is stark, starting with health care. But the bigger question is will American voters be duped by a breezy sales pitch or recognize what real political leadership looks like in 2012?