Leadership Lessons from the US Presidential Debates

The three recent US presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were each watched by about 60 million people in the USA and many more millions on TV and the web around the world.

They may not have decided the eventual outcome of the closely fought election on November 6 but they have given us some invaluable insights into the strengths and weaknesses of both contenders as a future global leader.

The media pundits have already ripped each candidate to shreds for all their supposed missteps and mistakes. So this column will take an even-handed look at what both men did right:

  1. Meticulous Preparation – Both candidates clearly did their homework and absorbed an incredible amount of information on a wide variety of topics that were discussed during the course of the three debates. Not just the mind-blowing facts and figures – which admittedly were sometimes a bit distorted by design or otherwise – but the intimate details of personal encounters on the campaign trail and the often subtle differences in respective positions on key issues, such as foreign policy in the third and final debate.
  2. Grace Under Fire – The intense crucible of a presidential debate – particularly the Town Hall format in the second one – could unnerve and overwhelm even the most accomplished public speaker. And yet both candidates repeatedly showed unswerving confidence, courage, restraint, good humor and equanimity even when things went wrong, such as when Governor Romney recovered quickly after being corrected on Libya by moderator Candy Crowley in the second debate and when President Obama put aside his evident anger at his opponent during that debate and answered the next question calmly and even-handedly.
  3. Flexibility and Adaptability – Both candidates matured from one debate to another, demonstrating an ability to learn from mistakes and change both substance and style. President Obama quickly realized that his laid back, professorial approach in the first debate was a recipe for disaster and he became much more animated and combative in the subsequent encounters. Throughout all three debates, Governor Romney shed the “serious conservative” label of the primaries and showed a pragmatic centrism that he knew was necessary to appeal to independent voters.
  4. Vision for the Future – They may differ on the respective roles of the public and private sectors and the way to incentivize and reward hard work but their visions for the future were well thought out and eloquently articulated on many occasions during the three debates. They are both deeply committed to serving this country and helping it to grow and prosper in the future.

This blogger confesses to a very strong personal preference for one of the candidates and he sees both men as strong and capable leaders, who will attempt to do what they see as being right for the USA and its place in the ever-changing world at this time and for the next four years.

If President Obama is re-elected, it will allow him to build on the successes of his first term, learn from his frustrations and failures and create a powerful legacy at home and abroad, thereby justifying the faith of the majority of the US population and the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

And if Governor Romney wins, it will allow him the opportunity to translate his extensive business and gubernatorial experience into a bold and different path for the country as it emerges from a wrenching downturn.

Neither is guaranteed success but if they can carry these four leadership traits into the White House next year and beyond, it will certainly help them achieve their goals.

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