Tag Archives: Leadership

Time to end our love affair with charisma

Is it time to end our love affair with charisma?

As an unabashed cheerleader for smart and engaging communication, I want to explore whether that mysterious quality is given too much weight.

The truth is someone who is extremely charismatic and/or connects deeply with a certain group can often skate on the knowledge required to actually do the job she or he has auditioned for. That ends up being no good for anyone because ultimately, that individual will be found out, often after much damage has been done.

On the other hand, we are human beings, having evolved over the millennia to be emotional and respond in kind. There is a natural selection process involved here that influences our choice of partners in both business and life and certainly in our decisions about what leaders to support and follow.

So the question, then, is not that an over-reliance on charisma can get us into trouble (it can), but how do we manage our response to it so it doesn’t overwhelm facts or our ability to make the most informed decisions?

nazirallyinggrounds2If you read my personal note, you saw I was recently in Nuremberg, Germany a city made infamous by Hitler and the Nazi Party and also famous by the German government and the Allies, which held the war crimes trials post-World War II. I walked in his footsteps. (If you look closely at this grainy photo, you’ll see Hitler in the foreground with his arm raised.) I then reviewed the propaganda. It was horrifying, to say the least.

In graduate school in communications, Hitler was one of the first leaders I studied. A charismatic speaker, we know he was able to inspire his followers, many of whom were average, middle-class people, to commit unspeakable acts against their fellow human beings.






(The Nazi Rallying grounds today)

Recognizing the horror of what had happened, an interesting phenomenon took hold: The country became a prime example of “anti-charisma.” I fondly recall working in Frankfurt some years ago for a big, international banking conglomerate and being struck by how “boring” the clients were. I didn’t get it at the time, though I should have. It was as if the German people had collectively decided that charisma could lead to very dark outcomes and should thus be treated with suspicion.

nazigroupinggrounds3v2That is a foreign concept to us in the US.

So back to my question about how to manage our response to charisma. First, in business, it is unlikely that charisma alone will get you the job, the deal, the recognition. There has to be some “there” there for that to happen. What it can do, however, is help you get a foot in the door.

Once that happens, it’s up to the person(s) responsible for choosing to do their homework, to thoroughly vet and research. To rely entirely on the emotional response and say, “I like her! (or him!)” is not enough. Behaving in that way is shirking a greater responsibility.

The true role of charisma then, in my opinion, is to function as a delivery vehicle for depth and knowledge. It does not stand alone.

 We saw what happened in Germany and Europe when it did. 

While Everyone Zigs, Donald Trump Zags and Why You Should, Too

It’s an old advertising/marketing adage: If everyone zigs, you zag.

What this means is you have to stand out, do the unexpected, un-follow the herd. We have a prime illustration of how successful this strategy can be in Donald Trump. He has been so successful, in fact, he could become the next POTUS, a terrifying thought.

Like a lot of media commentators, I stated early on Trump was a passing fancy, a man of the moment. I thought he would fade and soon. After all, how could someone who says and does such absurd things be taken seriously by voters?

I was so wrong and as a communication expert, I should’ve known better.

First, I always thought his slogan was perfect and the best of the lot, by far. I still do. “Make America Great Again” hits so many marks in message creation and framing, it’s hard to know where to start.

Second, since he announced over 8 months ago, he has been a daily fixture in the media. No other candidate has come close, not even Hillary Clinton. Trump knows it’s a bad day when he’s not being covered. He takes the cliché, “the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity,” to new heights.

Third, he has a strong POV and no filters.

Fourth, he knows what the media wants. More important, he knows what many people want and has tapped into how they are feeling. He says and does things that we have never seen publicly in a presidential candidate before. We’re shocked, but titillated. We shield our eyes, but we cannot turn away. We all say, “Oh, how awful,” but we secretly admire his chutzpah and skill (at least I do). We even agree with him on some things.  We cannot stop reading and watching. As a result, the long-suffering press industry has been presented with a financial windfall and, thus, has a stake in keeping him front and center.

It’s a very hungry beast and Trump knows how to feed it.

Trump knows the more outrageous his statements or behaviors, the more likely it is he’ll be covered. So he makes a habit of it and the media jumps. The outcome is all Trump all the time, a level of saturation that big advertisers can only dream of and Trump is getting for free! If you’re inclined to believe “A Diamond is Forever” or “You’re in Good Hands With All State,” then it stands to reason that “Make America Great Again” and its author have made a little home in that place in your brain that wants desperately to believe someone is out there who can make it all better.

Donald Trump may be the greatest “zagger” in modern times and though I personally think a President Trump would be a disaster (to use one of Donald’s favorite words), there are several things we can learn by watching him:

    • Identify what makes you different. Trump thinks of himself as the “strong man” among “weaklings.” He demonstrates it through his words and behavior. Your differentiator could be the way you serve clients or do your work. It can be your online branding or even your personal attire. Figure out how to “show, not tell.”
    • Follow your instincts. Unlike Donald Trump, most of us have filters. That is a double edged sword. It’s good if it enables you to entertain opposing viewpoints. It’s bad if it keeps you from saying something that needs to be said. If you feel something or hear that little voice, or if something doesn’t quite fit, acknowledge it, make sure stakeholders know your thinking and why, quickly course-correct, and move on.
    •  Know what you know. Certitude has always been a great sales technique and Trump has an excess of it. There are things we all know to be true others may find controversial. Don’t be afraid to state them unequivocally and remain steadfast in the face of criticism and pushback. It may mean some clients fall away or you push them away or find  employment that’s a better fit. This can be so difficult and painful, but it’s also freeing and  will create space for better things ahead.
    • Stick with it. Discipline is key. Trump has been doing his zagging consistently since he announced last June. Consistency works… even if what someone is saying is ridiculous. Why is this? Because repetition has a way of inspiring belief. (Again, I refer you to the major advertisers.) Don’t give up. If you become dislodged, get back in there.

Learn from Donald Trump, but don’t be like Donald Trump. He may be a role model as a marketer, but not as a human being and certainly not as a leader for this country. In his case, they are separate. In yours, they shouldn’t be.

Why Hillary Clinton Fails to Communicate

First, the facts: Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman to win the Iowa Caucuses. She won by a razor thin margin, which may have been disappointing to her, her team and her supporters, but that’s all you ever need to win, whether you’re running for President of the PTA or the USA. So let’s give her that, at least.

Second, unlike a lot of people, it didn’t surprise me to see Hillary Clinton do less well than expected in this first contest of the election season.

For candidates at this level to win (or win big), they have to inspire voters through 5 communication channels:

  • Message
  • Personal narrative (your formation story, hero journey, etc.)
  • Presentation
  • Interpersonal skills, and
  • Spouse (yep, your partner — or lack thereof — makes a difference)

These don’t all need to be nailed down, just the majority. Some (message and presentation) hold more weight than others. And they don’t have to be perfect or even great… just better than the opposition.

So you’d think after 25 years in the public eye, after running for president – not once, but twice – on a scale of 1-10, Hillary Clinton would be a 10! At least an 8 or a 9. Instead, she’s somewhere around a 6, give or take. And that won’t be enough to win this thing. So what’s going wrong? Well, a few things.

1.  Muddled message. What is her slogan? If you cannot answer that, you see the problem. Now Sanders doesn’t have a good slogan either. He has a chant, “Feel the Bern” (which I find kind of icky, but I can see where his supporters might like it). And he’s testing out a slogan that he lifted from Obama’s campaign. (They all steal stuff from other successful campaigns, by the way. There are only so many words that will do the trick. But this Obama slogan feels too recent to me for stealing. We’ll see if he sticks with it.) Slogans need to be aspirational, about the future, which is why Trump’s “Make America Great Again” and Rubio’s “A New American Century” have such great power. They also have to be easy to remember and have a ring to them when you say them. They make you feel good. The first thing I saw when I went to Clinton’s website after the big night was: “I’m with her.” Huh? People will only connect with you if your message is aspirational and gives them hope.

2.  Personal narrative: We haven’t heard much about her story and what we already know, we don’t necessary feel inspired by. There is a compelling story in there somewhere. How do I know? Because everyone has one and no, it doesn’t have to be “I was homeless and now I’m running for president.” Everyone has struggles. We need to hear about hers. BTW, we haven’t really heard much about Bernie’s struggles, either, so note to Bernie. Whose have we heard? Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are two great examples. Go read John Kasich’s. They’re compelling and make these guys more relatable. A compelling personal narrative tells people you’re like them, you get them, you have walked in their shoes in some ways.

3.  Presentation: Mostly she screws this up with her voice. (Click here to read yesterday’s New York Times on this exact topic in which I was quoted.) Now some of the criticisms out there are sexist – this culture doesn’t tolerate what it perceives as power displays by women. Beyond sexism, there is an entire new generation of voters who’ve never heard a woman’s voice in campaign mode at this level; men’s voices have been the gold standard by which women’s voices are measured. Still, she could do better vocally. She mistakes volume for expression. So instead of using the wide range of pitch in her speaking voice to make us lean in and listen, she increases her volume, which paradoxically limits her ability to be expressive. This translates as yelling and we’ve already got one of those in Sanders, whose voice is very unpleasant to listen to. And don’t head over to Cruz’s videos for any good examples of vocal expressiveness. His level of expression is so wide, so practiced, and so calculated, it sounds phony. He needs to go run a mega-church or something. Rubio, on the other hand, has this nonverbal code nailed for the most part. Definitely listen to him for a sound that is very pleasing and fluent. And I know he’s a man, but women’s voices can be pleasing and fluent, too.

The final two, interpersonal skills and spouse, will become more important as the campaign progresses and the candidates culled. Interpersonally, I think she’s pretty good. The spouse issue brings up a lot of stuff, a lot of it not necessarily favorable, but would be history-making, so get ready for that onslaught.

In the meantime, here’s what you can learn by observing this master class in public communication:

  1. Get very clear on your message and repeat it until you can’t stand it any more.
  2. Develop your personal story and practice telling it so people can discern your core values and philosophy to feel more connected with you.
  3. Work on your presentation skills. This is the biggest, most important thing you can do.

Becoming a great public communicator, the best marketing spend you can make, will return dividends far beyond your wildest dreams.