Lessons in Leadership Branding from Debate 11

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And then there were two…


Despite the fact that in two hours neither Bernie Sanders nor Joe Biden shared anything new regarding their platforms or policies, last night’s Democratic primary debate did give them each enough time to show what they’re each made of, what kind of opponent they would be up against President Trump, and what kind of president they’d be if they actually made it to the White House. And of course, teach us some important lessons in leadership communication.


In the end, both candidates’ performances also answered one crucial question in everyone’s mind: “What matters most to you in a candidate?” But we’ll get to that later.


The Big Three lessons were the importance of being able to:

  • Get to the point
  • Graciously give (and receive) credit
  • Project your desired brand.


Let’s break them down one by one.


Get to the point


The topic of the coronavirus hung over everyone’s head, and bookended the debate as the topic of the first several questions and the closing prompt. However, even though I took detailed notes on what each candidate said, unless I look back at what I wrote, I don’t remember any of it.




Because both people rambled on in a quasi-memorized stream of consciousness, and nothing stood out. This is a perfect example of where just a few select, repeated (you know you’re waiting for me to say it) “tweetable and repeatable” sound bites would have been both powerful and memorable.


Above, I gave you my “Three big lesson” topics in short, to-the-point phrases; if you want to tell someone else about them, you can easily remember and recite those phrases verbatim. The candidates KNEW the coronavirus topic was coming. Why couldn’t they distill their core, priority messages down to something like:

  • “We’re going to (1) control the spread,
  • (2) provide immediate, free, virus-related healthcare, and
  • (3) protect your jobs and income.”


Sure, they can then go into detail about what that all means, but those are concepts people get. Both candidates discussed all of those issues, but not in such simple “table of contents” style phrases. They could even have simplified it to:

  • “I have a three-stage plan to deal with the coronavirus:
  • (1) immediate control and treatment
  • (2) short-term management (2-4 weeks)
  • (3) long-term stabilization and resilience.”

Again, it’s broad, but it prepares the listener for the categories of details they’re about to hear, which makes it easier to process, understand and remember.


As an aside, I’ll give Joe Biden a half-credit for one “tweetable and repeatable” phrase: As I’ve mentioned after recent debates, last night he said “I’m the guy who…” four times. Unfortunately, that’s about one tenth of the number of times he should have said it, given the number of references he made to his record and accomplishments. If he’s trying to establish himself as the one who has done it all before and will get it done again, this is a great phrase to paint the right picture in someone’s mind. FYI, Joe: It’s not enough to have a round in the chamber; you have to pull the trigger.


Give and Receive Credit


Grace and humility are hallmarks of strong leadership, not contraindicators or weaknesses, and one way to demonstrate these qualities are in the ability to give ad receive credit. Both candidates had the opportunity to do so on multiple occasions, and ironically, both candidates succeeded AND failed to do so over the course of the evening.


Leading the way in this case was Joe Biden. When talking about offering free public college tuition to students from families making less than $125k/year, Biden graciously gave credit to Sanders for spearheading that movement. However, Sanders neither thanked Biden for that acknowledgement nor reciprocated in any way, which is unfortunate but not surprising since Biden is in the lead, and Sanders probably was instructed to say only negative things about Biden in order to close the gap.


But then the tides turned when the topic switched to the issue of “praising dictators.” Sanders acknowledged objective, statistical data that showed that over the years, China’s extreme poverty gap has lessened over the years. He very clearly and explicitly stated that his observation of that fact was in no way condoning the dictatorship that rules the Chinese government or the methods through which that achievement was attained. Biden, however, chose to go for optics, and kept framing it as “praising dictators,” as if trying to compare Sanders to Donald Trump, as the democrats have accused him of praising dictators in Russia, North Korea and elsewhere. It’s a shame, because it’s clear to anyone who was listening that Sanders wasn’t doing that at all. The question, of course, is who was really listening, and whose version they heard.


Why does this matter?


Because it is a glimpse into how well each candidate would be able to establish a working relationship with people across the aisle. Biden’s ability to give Sanders credit for a good idea, and Sanders’ ability to objectively acknowledge that China’s extreme poverty gap has lessened over the years (even if the ends do not justify the means) both show the ability to look at a situation objectively, not demand credit for everything or vilification of others to try to look good by comparison, and find ways to speak civilly and collaboratively with those with whom they don’t necessarily ideologically agree. A true leader – whether of a nation, a company, or even a scout troop – needs to be able to practice this and model it for others.


Project Your Desired Brand


In my book, Speaking to Influence: Mastering Your Leadership Voice, I discuss the gap between how you want to come across and how you actually come across when you speak. In other words, it’s the difference between the brand you want, and the brand you actually have, and the way you speak will determine whether or not those brands are one and the same.


Last night, Biden and Sanders each projected a brand that offered different answers to the question: “What’s most important to you in a presidential candidate?”


Joe Biden’s overall performance (with the exception of the aforementioned “praising dictators” gimmick,) said to the audience: “If you are tired of divisiveness, want to restore civility to our government and country, and want a leader with a track record of getting things done, I’m your guy.”


He respected time limits, gave Sanders credit for a few things as mentioned above, and for the most part answered the questions directly. Aside from a few minor flubs (e.g. forgetting the word “Ebola virus” and referring to the swine flu as “N1H1” instead of H1N1) his answers were solid. He fought by the gentlemen’s rules, and many people would like to see a gentleman in the White House.


In contrast, Bernie Sanders’ overall performance, from start to finish, said to the audience: “If you want a fighter who can stand up to Donald Trump on stage and win – and then fight for you, and win – I’m your guy.”


He was doggedly tenacious in not only lobbing accusations of voting records at Biden, but asking him questions and not allowing Biden to side-step the answer, redirecting the discussion back to his initial questions over and over so as not to let Biden off the hook. He did not allow himself to be sidetracked, and at times had Biden backpedaling and on his heels, showing Sanders to be the more formidable opponent in that context. And for many voters, that’s all that matters.


Now the two questions to YOU are:

  1. Politics: What matters most to you in a candidate? (And does either candidate demonstrate it?)
  2. Personal leadership: What matters most to you AS a leader, and does your brand messaging convey it?
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