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Why He Won: A Lesson in What People Really Want in a Leader

In 2008 the President was elected on charisma and hope. Yesterday he won on something less flashy but more enduring.
US President Barack Obama celebrates after delivering his acceptance speech in Chicago.
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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:

  1. Focus.  In the case of healthcare reform and the pursuit of bin Laden, for example, Obama showed he could bear down on a goal and stick to it until he achieved it.
  2. Consistency.  The president was able, even when dealing with issues in which he changed direction, to connect to earlier goals and maintain a through line for his Presidency.
  3. Mastery.  Obama was able to show that he mastered the knowledge required of his job, sometimes to the point of wonkishness. 
  4. Resilience.  Obama’s rebound from the 2010 Congressional election defeat, and from his poor showing in the first Presidential debate, showed that he could handle setbacks.
  5. Steadiness. The President convinced voters that while the recovery was still fragile, the foundation of progress had been laid, and the economy was now making continuous, incremental progress.
  6. Experience.  Handicapped by his lack of seasoning in 2008, he made the most of his role as incumbent this time. He capitalized on his grasp of foreign affairs in the second debate, for example, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy had an opportunity to prove himself as the efficient executive his predecessor had not been.

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.

Last updated: Nov 7, 2012

SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies

Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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