(Originally published here)
When it comes to leadership ‘If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made’ is often attributed to former Labour PM Blair. Good leaders need to be authentic but what does that mean? Here are some key lessons from Clinton and the UK election.
1. Authenticity is Passion, Mirroring is Important; Being Your True Self
The public are very good at spotting authenticity. It’s probably an evolutionary trait for self-protection. And they are very good at it when they have a face to face comparison they can make, as in the recent TV debates in the UK between the political party leaders. Of course sometimes we are duped, for a short time (‘tricky Dicky’ managed to dupe the American public for a while, but not when up against Kennedy). Passion is authenticity, it is caring, it is being like your audience, who are there because they care. So the rolled up sleeves and no tie helps to show passion and mirrors the audience more closely.
In the UK election, the widespread view has been that once the PM rolled up his sleeves, killed the tie and started speaking with energy and passion he was very much more captivating. Is this fake? No, it is the PM being his true self; unconstrained by suit, tie and the uniform of Westminster. Letting a leader ‘be themselves’ is when you find out if they are fake or the real thing. PM Cameron won hands down once he was coming out as the ‘real thing’ and he did care about the people, not just power.
2. Not too much passion
When Hillary Clinton during her failed election campaign pretty much started crying because of her love of America, that didn’t work in her favour. Passion from a leader yes, but not to the point of weakness. When Miliband was asked by Jeremy Paxman in a TV debate if he ‘was tough enough to be PM’ the Labour leader had a tough job of trying to lay to rest he is weak and soft and not up to the job. Words such as ‘heck yes I’m tough enough’ didn’t ring true.
In fact, off camera he was asked by the interviewer ‘ are you alright Ed’? His attempt at passion, came across too much like he was going to cry. Sitting back, in calm control can be the way to go when passion will suggest weakness. Miliband got it wrong. He wasn’t being authentic, he was trying to be authentic.
Miliband should have learnt from the former Labour Leader. When Gordon Brown, widely considered a poor communicator as PM, was fighting against Scottish Independence in the referendum vote, many said he ‘saved the Union’. Unleashed from the constraints of office you saw what made him a successful politician – a man who genuinely cared, speaking with care. Just the right amount.
3. Authenticity is focus
Sitting in a room listening to Bill Clinton speak I truly felt he was addressing me personally. Speaking to me. Looking at me. Genuinely interested in me. Ever spoken to someone at a party and they start looking over your shoulder? He didn’t do that. Ever been to an event where someone has a point to make, and just talks at the audience. Clinton doesn’t do that.
The UK PM in the latest TV debates came across as genuinely addressing the person and their concerns when asked questions by the audiance. Some people as the PM said, were never going to be convinced, but the polls showed he ‘won’ the debate.
4. Not too much focus
When Ed Miliband in the first of the TV debates in answering audience questions started staring into the TV cameras the tweets that followed gave instant feedback that the strategy looked contrived and insincere. He was trying to fake sincerity; too much Labour PM Blair.
Indeed, in a TV satire about the UK elections, his chief campaign manager is portrayed as an American; the point being you have to be genuine, not aping the cultural norms of another culture or ticking off a list. You have to be yourself, what got you where you are to begin with. Once you need to change to get further, you’re in trouble.
5. What do you do when you’re telling the truth but you’re not believed
As a former barrister this was an issue we could expect to face in every case. The answer is two-fold; emotion and reason. The best example of this in the TV debates was when the PM was asked ‘Conservatives are not trusted with the NHS’. What does he say? He cannot say, ‘please believe me’.
When the Labour leader was asked ‘Labour cannot be trusted with the economy’ his response was simply ‘you can’. That doesn’t work. What worked for the PM was emotion and reason perfectly combined. He told the specific story (and stories work best) of his disabled child and the NHS treatment he received. You can’t fake that. You feel the reason and the emotion. It’s authentic. Either Labour were underprepared or negligent. But I don’t remember the Labour leader’s answer.