The Leader's Voice

Washington Rules: Ten lessons for leaders

Washington Rules : Ten lessons for leaders

Politics and business are different disciplines. But just as business leaders can look to sport, war or even fiction for inspiration, there are some clear lessons they can learn from the political world.

  1. You’re on sale as much as your products. Politics is a personality game. Much of the public votes on whether they like the candidate. Teams go to painstaking lengths to humanize candidates and present them as ‘likeable’. Businesses are often unwilling to project their leaders as an entity on their own, but a strong public profile of a CEO can change the whole image of a company. The personality of the leader is often more important than the structure he/she is leading, and therefore a strong public profile of a leader can influence the image of the company as a whole.
  2. Be flexible. Politicians are adept at recognizing the mood of the populace and reacting to it. This doesn’t mean you have to compromise your core principles, but rather that there is value in being willing to compromise and re-negotiate. Sticking to a firm corporate line won’t always work. Companies need to be willing and able to adjust to different cultures and environments
  3. Accept failures and work to correct them. Politics proves that people are forgiving. If you own up to your mistakes and show clearly how you are working to fix them, you wont necessarily lose support. You need to look no further than Bill Clinton’s re-election to prove this. Refusing to accept failure can have a devastating impact on a company. Getting out ahead of an issue by accepting a mistake and working to correct it can limit any negative consequences.
  4. Remember that perception is everything. Politicians understand (perhaps too well) that their actions are judged according to their reputation, not the other way round, and they work to ensure that their public image is as controlled as it can be. A strong reputation is the best way to withstand any potential crises. Companies often think that their work will speak for them. This is simply no longer true. A company’s public perception needs to be constantly massaged and managed to ensure that the public perception accurately reflects the reality.
  5. Don’t be afraid to take a stand. Politics is about opinions. From the moment a politician first starts campaigning, he or she sets out exactly what they stand for, even if they know it is going to alienate some voters. This is the most fundamental way of attracting voters. Business leaders are sometimes afraid to take a stand on issues, believing it is not their place to have an opinion. But the public now expects the opposite and business leaders need to recognize that acts of omission or inaction can be more damaging to the bottom-line than acts of commission.
  6. Understand that the power lies with the people. Good politicians have mastered the art of engaging with the ‘everyman’. Politicians understand that they need to appeal to everyone to gain support, hence the photo-ops at barbecues, duck hunts or baseball games. If that seems authentic, it can show that the politician understands the public. If it seems forced, the effect can be excruciating. Business leadership too often lies above the fray. Social and online media gives business leadership the opportunity to communicate directly with their stakeholders. Business leaders should take advantage of this opportunity and use it to establish direct rapport with their stakeholders. The public is much more likely to stay loyal if they feel they have a relationship with the leadership.
  7. Put the audience first. Politicians base their campaigns around finding the small grey zone between what they believe in, and what the public wants them to believe in. A successful politician uses their constituents to help shape their policies and priorities. Businesses need to use the resources available to them to ask what their customers, or wider stakeholders, actually want. Effective business leaders spend more time making strategic plans, not operational ones.
  8. Accept that there are things you don’t know. Successful politicians choose their teams based not on what they know, but what they don’t know. When President Obama brought on Harper Reed to run his online campaigning, Reed had never worked on a campaign, but knew about digital communications, and Obama did not. Reed’s work was instrumental in Obama’s success and his methods changed the way campaigns are run.
  9. Be self-aware. The media scrutiny of a political campaign requires a candidate to constantly be self-aware. Politicians and their teams are constantly working to understand not only how their audience will react to a decision, but also why, and are utilizing this information in their decision making. Businesses too, benefit from assessing and evaluating their strategy on a regular basis. Without looking back to see what has and has not worked in the past, it is very difficult to develop the best strategy for the future.
  10. Be patient and resilient. No political leader got to the top without coming up against roadblocks. If you look at leaders like Hillary Clinton you will see that part of her current popularity is her ‘rising against all odds’ reputation. It takes time and testing for any leader to make a tangible impact. Patience and resilience are key for any leader.

Many of these tips may seem self-evident, but it is surprising how often they get a candidate elected, or boost a popularity poll. Conversely, ignoring some of these tips has been the downfall of many a business leader. Portland’s recently launched Washington D.C. office combines extensive experience with business leaders with and understanding of Washington’s political buzz, to help our clients develop communications strategies that combine the best of both worlds.