As the Republican presidential primary heads into the final stretch before the Iowa caucus in January, it's hard to ignore the outspoken figure generating sensational daily headlines nationwide: Newt Gingrich.
Before you roll your eyes at Gingrich—the GOP's most prolific candidate in terms of speeches, appearances, op-eds, policy papers, and books written—and the whole mudslinging political melodrama, consider that it might actually an ideal time to take a moment to observe, and learn.
"Public displays of leadership, as I like to call them, are always instructional," says Brian Evje, a management consultant at Slalom Consulting, which is based in Seattle. "In the business world, leadership happens behind closed doors. Politics happens in the public domain, and it's a good study of what to do and not do as a leader."
Whether your classroom on the airwaves is MSNBC or Fox News, check your ideology at the door and and take note. Here's what you can learn from Gingrich.
1. If you mess up, fess up. Gingrich's most recent crisis came in the form of a foot-in-mouth statement, after calling the Palestinians an "invented" people last week. He defended the position at Saturday night's GOP debate.
According to the experts, Gingrich probably shouldn't have thrown more fuel on the fire.
"The public loves a good apology, and they also like to hear that you've messed up," says McAdory Lipscomb, leadership consultant and founder of CeoCoach.net, who says that issuing bad news, or an apology, in the private sector is no different.
Evje agrees, but adds that CEOs have the added advantage of not being so publicly scrutinized on every word as is a politician running for office.
"You don't have to rush into [a crisis] to prove something to somebody, that makes the focus you and you are not the focus," adds Evje. "If you want to be an enlightened leader, the center is not you. If you want to win an election the center has to be you."
2. Drop the phony, formal business talk. "One of Newt's biggest assets is his ability to speak in plain terms," says Lipscomb. "Despite what you think of the message, it's easily understood by the full spectrum of people—the dumbest person in the room, and the smartest. What I find CEOs often forget is that it clear communication is their responsibility as a leader."
But Evje warns that excessive communication can actually backfire.
For example, a politician may make appearances on four major network morning television shows to talk about one issue. He may speak plainly enough to get his point across, but viewers may ask why he feels the need to go on four shows—which shows that overcommunication can undermine the message.
"When is effective communication necessary? Well, when it's necessary, but it's not always necessary," he says. "If you abuse this, you will end up campaigning within your company rather than communicating."
3. It's your over-sized ego, stupid. "If a CEO were to look at Newt Gingrich and say, 'This is the strategy I want to pursue,' he or she would actually be saying, 'I want to make myself the center of every conversation,'" Evje says.
He says that politics is all about the individual, but leadership should actually be more about de-emphasizing the individual, and playing up the team.
"True leadership is quiet and humble," he adds.
4. Get on message and spread it like wildfire. While Gingrich fights accusations of flip-flopping on everything from healthcare to religion, Lipscomb says it's a good reminder that like a politician, it's the business leader who is the creator and distributor of the company's message.
"A cohesive message is just a simple vision of where you want to take the company. No one else can or should be coming up with that except the leader," he says. "You should also note that Newt knows how to use television to spread the message, which CEOs should do, too, and he knows how to get in front of the media by attending events."
5. Remember, campaigning is not equal to leading. While an effective CEO has to have "political" skills, such as strategic positioning and communication, Evje says that a CEO isn't in the business of convincing employees that he or she is in charge.
"A politician campaigns with high rhetoric and bold promises, but governing, or leading, is done with a much more moderate sense of things," he adds.