3 Lessons for Leaders from the Presidential Election

Wesley SmithThe 2016 presidential race has been a train wreck. For most of us, it has proven nearly impossible to look away.

While we sit in the congestion caused by our political rubbernecking, there are opportunities to learn from the mistakes made in 2016. Here are my three pragmatic takeaways for business and community leaders from this presidential election:

Lesson 1: There Are No Secrets

Never before, in the history of the world, have secrets been harder to keep. When you do something wrong, it’s likely documented in some way, and it can be broadcast widely with great ease. Examples from the 2016 presidential race are plentiful, from Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server to Trump’s open mic recording, to Wikileaks’ dumps that expose Clinton campaign emails divulging embarrassing secrets, attempts to hide and deceive will almost certainly come back to haunt you.

You can’t hide from a video or voice recording. You can’t hide from a paper trail or an email thread. It will catch-up to you at some point. Both candidates have high unfavorable ratings. Polls show that neither candidate enjoys support from even half of the people. In other words, they are both disliked by a majority of people. Denying and destroying the truth is a huge reason why people don’t like these candidates. The people simply don’t trust Trump or Clinton.

The takeaway for leaders is simple: do what is right behind closed doors. If you are not motivated to do what is right for the sake of its rightness, do it because it is in your own best interest. You can’t conceal the truth, so internalize this fact and act accordingly.

Lesson 2: Collaborate or Perish

Of all the lessons learned from the 2016 presidential election, this one may be the most important and obvious one. There were 17 major candidates that participated in the 2016 GOP primary election. Nearly all of the candidates running for the GOP nomination loathed the eventual nominee, Donald Trump. Only one candidate clearly evaluated the options and did the right thing – Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. After dropping out of the GOP primary very early in the voting, The Hill reported that Walker said of Trump and the process,

“I think in the end, he has a plurality but not a majority of the votes within the process. Eventually, I hope others do what I did, which is suspend their campaigns, because if you have a large field, a plurality can win, but if you have a small field, more people will focus toward the majority opinion.”

The candidates had the opportunity to achieve an outcome far preferable than the one that was forced upon them and their constituencies. They could have collaborated with like-minded allies and won, but instead, they left each other out to dry, to be picked off one by one by Trump and his plurality. Divide and conquer isn’t a new strategy, it’s just sad that Republican candidates divided themselves long enough for Trump to secure the nomination.

The takeaway for leaders is to look to collaborate first and avoid a zero-sum mentality. You’ll find more success as you follow the example of Gov. Walker because the world is a magnificently large place to compete and collaborators occupy the high ground in competition. Reach out and help others, and it will make your own organization better.  

Lesson 3: Winning the Right Way Matters

Sec. Clinton will win the election; she may even win in a landslide at this point. But it will be a hollow victory. Then what? She certainly will not have a mandate to govern. She has not gained the trust of the electorate. A columnist for the Washington Post wrote:

“Clinton will not win the White House because of her policy agenda or the public’s confidence in her. She’ll win it because of the ineptness and vulgarity of her general election opponent, Donald Trump.”

Being the lesser of two evils will not build your brand or put you in a position to succeed in the future. In fact, it can and does have long-term impacts that undermine true achievement. Will Sec. Clinton enjoy her inaugural parade? Absolutely. Will she also be in a very weak position to govern and to lead? Absolutely.

The takeaway for leaders is that malignant, short-term success will encumber future growth and achievement. Sometimes a default win seems like the only way to make it happen, but just remember such wins bring short-lived satisfaction, and they leave you with a steeper hill to climb once you’ve achieved your technical, but ungratifying victory. 

When you look at these three lessons together – do the right thing behind closed doors, collaborate and put long-term interests first – they sound pretty obvious, but that doesn’t make following these lessons easy. Real people made real decisions to get us into this mess in the 2016 presidential election because the alternative was enticing. There will always be seemingly compelling reasons to hide the ball, engage in unproductive, zero-sum competition and pursue a technical, short-term win. Resist these motivations. The alternative is so much better for you and your organization.

Wesley Smith is the managing partner at 24NINE, an external affairs consultancy that specializes in policy, communications and government affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]