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Business Lessons from Presidential Elections

This is a follow-on article to the another article I had written soon after the Democratic Primaries ended in April of 2008. The article was titled, “Business Lessons from the Presidential Primaries.”

Amazinlgy enough, all the lessons from the Primaries still apply in the Presidential election, even more so in some cases. I don’t want to repeat them, here. But it’s worth a second read. Just click here to read that article before your read this one.

Here are 9 more lessons, not in any particular order.

Lesson #1: Stay above the fray. Don’t take it in the gut

It’s a cruel world out there. In business, just like in politics, you can be accused of being too black or too white. Too pretty or too ugly. Too tall or too short. People may not like the way you walk around or sit down. Some will have a problem with scars on your face or your limbs being too awakward. We are a bored buch of people looking for entertainment in everything. And business and politics are no exception.

The world will judge us whether we like it or not. If we don’t immunize ourselves against the world’s judgments, we will end up losing.

This was demonstrated in the Presidential debates where Obama was often perceived as cool and calm and McCain was perceived as edgy, even angry.

It seems, McCain let all of this get to him in the gut. Obama didn’t, despite the fact that he had every reason to, especially the racial stuff.

One of the way to not let it hit you in the gut is to…

Lesson #2: Don’t make it about “me” make it about “them”

“Them” here is not just your customer (voters) but also your team, your volunteers (your employees, partners and other stake-holders) and your suppliers.When you make it about “them”, “they” will make it about “you.” They will give you their time, their energy and their money. They may even give you their hearts and their souls. They will bend over backwards for you, even follow you till the end.

In the end, true leadership is never just about “me,” it’s about “us”.

Great leaders demonstrate their leadership qualities through their action, not by talking about it…

Lesson #3: The proof is in the pudding

The way that Obama ran his campaign showed his leadership skills. No matter what your political affiliation is, would a lousy leader be able to raise $300 million, most of it from average people in small amounts? Would an incompetent leader be able to build the ground operation that Obama built to turn out the vote? Would a bad leader be able to lead a campaign organization with millions of volunteers who did not get paid a penny (actually many of them paid the campaign, in the form of donations)?

Sure, the winds were blowing in the direction of the democrats. But under an incompetent leadership, it would have still been easy to blow this election. It’s been done before - twice.

A good measure of a great leader, both in business and politics, is how prepared she is…

Lesson #4: Luck is preparation meeting opportunity

The 13-minute video created in first week of October by the Obama campaign was created by David Axelrod in April of 2008, 5 months before they used it. I suspect that the campaign ultimately used only a fraction of the total firepower they had collected. But being prepared gives you that cold confidence that allows you to respond to problems and opportunities as they are presented.

Because of their preparedness, the Obama campaign was able to take advantage of the opportunity created by the economic crisis in October of 2008.

But there will be times when things just won’t go your way…

Lesson #5: Stay the course when the wind is not blowing your way

A good example isBarack Obama staying with his message throughout the campaign, even when things got rough. In some rare moments, he did get off his message (remember “lipstick on a pig”?). When he did, the campaign lost ground.

There are plenty of tempting opportunities to change the course along the way. A leader must respond to such opportunities with a cool head. That’s why, a great leader will often seem like he is a slow decision maker…

Lesson #6: Quick decision-making does not always mean good decision-making

A social and political leader – and yes, a business leader - has many things to consider before making decisions.

Lately, it has been wrongly assumed that quick, hard-headed decision makers are good leaders. It’s only in the last 8 years that impulsive, half-baked, erratic and stubborn decision-making has been associated with good leadership. Most Americans now agree that (77% to 23% as of the time of this writing) that’s not true.

People recognized this when they saw McCain respond to the economic crisis with putting his campaign on hold and flying off to Washington. Same thing when he picked Sarah Palin, an untested and controversial figure, as his running mate.

Some of our best Presidents were slow decision makers. They agonized, they looked for counsel, they talked with their advisors, they sought to look at issues from many angles before making important decisions. One of our greatest Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was notorious for slow, deliberate decision making. And he was a war-time president.

Other examples of slow yet effective decision makers: Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.

Yet, don’t confuse slow decision making with slow actions. Great leaders, once their minds are made up, take swift, committed action. Lincoln, once he knew that his fight against slavery was a just fight, never wavered from his commitment to winning the Civil War, even when it dragged on and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost.

When it comes to action, great leaders never get complacent, even when going is good…

Lesson #7: Keep that sense of urgency even - especially - when you are ahead

Three weeks before the election, when he was ahead in every poll, Obama had one message for his voters and supporters: “Don’t Get Complacent.” He wanted the voters to turn out to vote. He urged the supporters to keep knocking on more and more doors.

This is especially true in business. We need to prospect more when the pipeline is full and when we are hitting our sales goals. We need to service our customers better just when they sing our praises. We need to challenge our employees to accomplish even more, just when they have shattered their previous records.

Good leaders don’t quit because they are ahead, they fortify that lead to set themselves up for even a better advantage…

Lesson #8: Don’t take chances

After they raised $150 million in September, an astounding number by any measure, the Obama Campaign kept raising money in October. After they were ahead in polls in most swing states, which were Republican to begin with, the Obama Campaign started expanding their campaigning into other states - like West Virginia, Arizona and Missouri. After building perhaps the most formidable ground operation in political history, they kept knocking on doors to turn out the vote.

When your business is doing well, it’s easy to want to slow down a little. But we need to resist that urge and instead, keep moving, keep growing.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly…

Lesson #9: Bring something unique to the field of leadership

One thing that Obama brought to his campaign and now to his administration is his ability to inspire and engage ordinary people from all walks of life. This is truly Obama’s signature style.

No other President has brought this to his campaign, or his governing style.

A lot has been written about why Barack Obama’s presidency is historic because he is the first African American president. What’s not written about enough is that even if he was not black, his campaign would have been considered historic. For the reasons mentioned above and more. I envite you to write your own lessons and share with us here.

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