There's been plenty of cackling and yelling so far this political season, but it was a rare, quiet moment on the Democratic debate stage earlier this week that stole the show. Hillary Clinton finally acknowledged what her political ground troops have been trying to cover up for so long: She's not, by her own admission, "a natural politician."

In other words, Clinton knows she's got a likability problem. Her husband? Very likable, despite his immense flaws. Donald Trump? Very likable to millions--and despised by many. As I've written many times, likability does not mean you're the nicest person in the world. Sometimes if you're too nice, you're not very likable. Likability is more about how relatable you are to people. The more authentic you are, the more likable you become.

Ironically, Clinton's admitting she's not likable made her, well, more likable. The reaction on Twitter ranged from finding her remark "endearing" to "brilliant" in turning a weakness into a strength. She sounded authentic, a word you don't hear uttered in the same breath as her name often. (Check out the backlash against Clinton on her recent visit to a Detroit coffee shop.)

So what other leadership lessons can be drawn from that 30-second moment of catharsis on television? Here are three to remember:

1. It's OK to admit your flaws. Highly successful people tend to have the British disease of the stiff upper lip. In the face of adversity, never let them see you sweat. The problem is that this creates an unrealistic persona that people find hard to relate to. These days, admitting that you make mistakes only makes you more human, more likable, and, surprisingly, more inspiring. Think about how few people seem bothered by Donald Trump's business failings--in fact, some voters say that just shows he's a risk taker and a dogged pursuer of the American Dream.

2. If you want people to remember you, say something surprising. The fact is, Clinton had a long preamble to her "not a natural politician" remark, talking about how it's important for her to fight for Americans and to change their lives. Talking points like that fall on deaf ears, even if she means every word. When she said something surprising, everyone's ears perked up. If you want your audience to remember the speech you're making, whether it's your employees or a room full of conference attendees, say something that few expect. Just think carefully about it first.

3. Authenticity wins out every time. For months, Clinton has been trying to connect to voters through various ways on social media. Almost every major attempt has been criticized, from asking voters to "emoji" their views on student debt to paying tribute to Rosa Parks with a logo that social media users deemed backward. All those moves reinforced the view that Clinton is out of touch. With that one true remark on the debate stage this week, she climbed her way a little out of that hole. Now it's a matter of making sure not to fall back in.

Published on: Mar 11, 2016
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