In 2008 the President was elected on charisma and hope. Yesterday he won on something less flashy but more enduring.
Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama celebrates after delivering his acceptance speech in Chicago.
The leadership lessons learned from Obama’s re-election yesterday are more subtle than those from 2008. For his first Presidential election victory, the ingredients were dazzling—charisma, hope, aspiration, and vision. His campaign rallying cry said it all: “Fired up, ready to go!”
It would be hard to argue that President Obama fired up anyone this time around.
What we saw this time wasn’t leadership with a big, spectacular “L.” It was leadership with a small “l.” This style of leadership isn’t dramatic. Its fundamental characteristic is pragmatism and accommodation to reality. In Obama's case, it wasn't always pretty. But one of the unappreciated truths about real leaders is, they often inch their way to success.
Americans have always been drawn to doers rather than performers. Voters loved the electrifying Obama of 2008, but they nearly forced him into a one-term Presidency when he failed to live up to their inflated expectations. An openly hostile Republican Congress downsized his ambitions and turned him into a realist--and that is the person Americans re-elected.
In the end, his win was a product not of his message of hope, but of his capacity--and that of supporters like Bill Clinton--to convince voters that the state of the economy and the world was so uncertain that the country needed competence more than magnetism.
That may hardly seem like a litmus test of great leadership, especially in rough times. And yet that's often when voters--or colleagues, for that matter--have the least patience for rhetoric and promises and the greatest appreciation for someone who can simply get things done. In his display of competent, small "l" leadership, Obama hit six crucial checkpoints:
Obviously, Obama's maturing into a pragmatic leader isn't the only reason he won. He ran a hardball campaign; he played up his strength with women and Latinos; he made the most of his likability; he raised plenty of money; and he got crucial help from allies like his wife and Bill Clinton. All these factors contributed to victory. But they could not have won him the election without the electorate's perception that he was a good enough doer to bring the recession-tossed ship of state safely to port.
What lessons does this election have for business owners? It's simple. I've long argued that charisma is over-rated. When things get rough, people don't look for flamboyance; they look for competence. Obama came close to losing the race because he promised too much four years ago. But he won yesterday because he managed to convince voters that he was just good enough to see the rest of the job through. And that was all he needed.
Want to become a better, smarter, more effective team builder and communicator? Join us at Inc.'s upcoming Leadership Forum June 10 to June 12 in San Diego. Visit leadership.inc.com for details.
Samuel Bacharach is a professor of labor management at Cornell and director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies. He co-founded the Bacharach Leadership Group and blogs at The Bacharach Blog. Among his books: Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. @samuelbacharach