Three Crucial Leadership Communication Lessons from Debate #10

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Ten rounds of debate into the Democratic primary and my overall reaction to last night’s debate was: disappointment.  Nobody truly stood out, and the overall environment was chaotic and unpleasant to listen to and watch.


But most mind-bogglingly (yes, that’s a word), nobody used ANY tweetable-and-repeatable refrains, despite the fact that yesterday morning I sat there with @Jillian Mele on #Fox & Friends First, where they had taken my previous analysis of Debate Round 9 and broken it down into on-screen graphics, candidate by candidate, to outline what I said each person needed to do to break ahead. Yes candidates, #FoxNews, of all networks, made you a step-by-step playbook on how to win, and you STILL blew it. Congratulations, you’re paving the way for President Trump’s reelection in November.


HOWEVER – in looking a bit more closely, three critically important leadership communication skill sets stood out to me, which we can also apply in our own lives:


  1. Talking about your strengths without sounding arrogant
  2. Giving credit where credit is due
  3. Facilitating discussions with a group of “Type A” personalities and egos


Let’s break those down and look at where they were most – or least – effectively demonstrated in last night’s debate.


Talking about your strengths without sounding arrogant


I work with a lot of people on networking and interviewing skills, and one of the most common issues many people – especially women and people from cultures that prize humility as a core value – tend to struggle with is the question of how to talk about yourself and your accomplishments without sounding like you’re bragging.


The simple answer is: Use nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs.


What I mean by that is that if you describe yourself with lots of subjective adjectives like “I’m great at business development” people are likely to be skeptical. In contrast, if you simply identify objective actions and achievements, e.g. “I grew the sales team from ten to fifteen people and led the team to a 250% increase in revenue over 18 months,” then the listener is likely to think, “Wow, this person is really great at business development.” Naturally, they’re much more likely to believe their own assessment of your greatness than yours. Lead them to draw the conclusion for themselves, don’t feed it to them. Assuming your delivery isn’t too melodramatic like you’re trying to impress them with the stats, you won’t sound like you’re bragging at all.


There were several great examples of how to do this well – or not – last night. First, Joe Biden was particularly good at listing his litany of accomplishments regarding bills he’d passed with President Obama, and it never once sounded arrogant. It was simply his resume, plain and simple. (If he had only prefaced them with his Round 9 refrain, “I’m the guy who…” it would have been so much more impactful.)


A more subtle – though equally crucial – example is the contrast in closing statements of Tom Steyer, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. The final question of the night asked the candidates to share a common misconception about them. The answers were telling.


Tom Steyer said that a common misconception is that he is defined by business and money. This is a reasonable point to address because it allows him to explain where people are understandably drawing incorrect conclusions about him based on certain facts. Yes he has a lot of money and business experience, but he explained that it has allowed him to have a deeper understanding of what does and doesn’t work for the country and inspired him to run for president, to make a positive change. He focused on reinterpreting the same facts that others had misinterpreted. He set the record straight, no bragging involved.


Pete Buttigieg also was effective this way. He said a misconception about him is that people think he’s not passionate simply because they see him as “unflappable” (I’ve used that word about him and Tulsi Gabbard myself.) Unpassionate and unflappable are other people’s interpretations of his more even-keeled behavior in debates. He was able to set the record straight by addressing the objective behaviors – remaining calm and in-control without resorting to yelling and personal attacks even under pressure – and reinterpreting them for people. Once again, no bragging involved.


Amy Klobuchar, on the other hand, has crossed this line in the wrong direction in virtually every debate. Among her many infractions of this sort, last night she said the misconception about her was “that I’m boring, because I’m not.” Oh, Amy. “Boring” is not an interpretation of data, it’s an opinion. That’s totally different.


I don’t happen to think that Ben Stiller movies are funny, and even though I’m probably in the minority on that issue, it’s still just my opinion. You can tell me why you disagree, but you can’t “prove” me wrong in a way that will actually make me laugh while watching his movies – at least the ones I’ve already seen. If people think you’re boring, then that’s their opinion of you, period. You have to do something different that they will find interesting to change their minds, not just tell them that they should. It’s like the nerd on the playground running up to the jocks and saying, “Hey guys, let me play, I’m cool too!” The more your only evidence is your own opinion, the more likely people are to dismiss it. It sounds like bragging, and unwarranted bragging at that. People will think even less about you as a result.


Giving Credit where Credit is Due


A true hallmark of leadership and diplomacy is the ability to give credit where credit is due, even if you don’t like the other person. No reconciliation between two people, groups or countries can ever take place if all discussion centers around criticism of the other’s failures and faults. One of the first steps in diffusing tensions and creating the environment of trust in which warring factions are willing and able to come to the table and create change is acknowledging a positive attribute or success. To do otherwise is to say “I believe that you are a terrible person at your core and are incapable of anything good or valuable.” Why would I want to continue discussion with someone who thinks and says that about me?


Bernie Sanders showed leadership, class and grace under fire in this area last night. In discussing Cuba, Sanders was attacked for having given Fidel Castro credit for improving the country’s literacy rate. In a thinly-veiled attempt to take down the momentary front-runner in the race, his opponents tried to overgeneralize that comment to make it sound like he was praising Castro as a wonderful leader overall, and they attempted to draw parallels between Sanders’ relationship with Castro and President Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin.


Sanders stood his ground and stated matter-of-factly that he disapproved of the dictatorship overall, but would objectively give credit for that one success. Whether or not the ends justified Castro’s means to achieve that success is a whole other question, which was not the topic of discussion in the moment. Shame on you other candidates for twisting that around in an attempt at sensationalism and fear-mongering, a strategy you’ve all referred to as “demagoguery” when ascribing it to Donald Trump’s speech style. (Hypocrisy, anyone?) In that moment, Sanders was demonstrating is one of the skillsets of an effective diplomat, and to neither acknowledge nor demonstrate it does not shed a good light on what a future administration would look like under your leadership.


Facilitating Discussions with “Type A” Personalities


My final “razzberry” for the night doesn’t go to any of the candidates; rather, it goes to the moderators, who apparently thought their job was merely to ask a question and then do nothing. Yes, it’s difficult to walk the fine line and diplomatically but effectively keep people to time limits and intervene when it becomes a free-for-all, but when you’re officially moderating or facilitating a panel or discussion of any sort, it’s part of the job description. If you’re unable and/or unwilling to do so, you don’t belong in the seat.


When I’ve chaired board meetings and other events in which there was a lot to do in a short amount of time, and a variety of opinions, priorities and personalities involved, my first step has always been to not merely state expectations for participation, but to ask for people’s commitment up front to adhere to them, and more importantly, I ask each participant to grant me permission to intervene as necessary to ensure the group’s objectives get met.  Nobody ever says no, because they want me to hold everyone else accountable.


Then, having been so publicly and unanimously deputized, when someone start talking over another person, I can interrupt respectfully but authoritatively: “Excuse me, Jack, but as you’ve all instructed me to do, I just need to ask you to hold that thought until Mary finishes her point so everyone can hear her idea and yours clearly. Thanks so much.” To date, nobody has ever refused to momentarily yield.


The moderators last night could just as easily have asked everyone on stage to state outright whether or not they were willing to adhere to time limits and not interrupt someone else’s designated talk time. Would anyone have dared to refuse that request? Then the moderators could have reminded them gently of that commitment whenever they broke it, and the millions of witnesses would stand to judge their reactions first-hand. Had the moderators taken that initiative, last night could have been a very different – read: more pleasant and productive – experience for all.


Was it worth it?


With all that said, was it worth watching the full two hours? If your goal was to identify a clear frontrunner, I’d have to say no. But if you look at it as a living case study of effective messaging, then it’s a resounding yes.


Candidates: next time, we’d appreciate being able to say “yes” to both.

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