I recall my parents “encouraging” me to watch the presidential debates when I was a kid. They would call me out of my room, and urge me to sit on the gold and brown plaid couch in our family room while they turned on our big floor-console TV to whichever of the four channel options was televising the debate. They said I should watch the debates as they were “history in the making” and counted towards fulfilling “my duty as an American citizen” (which makes no sense because I wasn’t even old enough to vote).
I was scarred as a child, and I can honestly say that I have not watched a presidential debate since. I certainly fulfill my patriotic duty as an American citizen, and vote in every election, but I get all of my information from reading the newspapers or watching candidate interviews. I have had no interest whatsoever in watching a debate. That is, until last night.
Last night changed everything, and like so many Americans I watched every moment of the debates. It was like a bad car accident where I couldn’t help but rubberneck. Even though I stayed up past my bedtime (yes, three hours is a long time), I was afraid to turn off the TV for fear of missing something “juicy!”
I watched this debate through the lens of leadership, and I paid special attention to the three “non-politicians” on the floor: Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Donald Trump. Someone asked me this morning what I thought. The first answer that came to mind was a comparison between Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Remember that childhood favorite? Goldilocks enters the house of the three bears and tries sitting in their three chairs, eating from their three bowls of porridge and lying in their three beds. The first option is too soft/too cold. The second option is too hard/too hot. The third option is “just right.”
What did I think? It was pure Goldilocks from a leadership perspective!
Ben Carson: Ben was the first bear. He totally whiffed, and missed an opportunity to shine. He came into the debate owning the #2 spot, but quickly allowed it to be taken away from him. He spoke softly. He played it safe. He didn’t give off a sense of confidence. While a calm and pleasant demeanor is nice to see in a strong leader, I also expect to see an energy level and a bias for action. Leaders don’t sit back and let others bulldoze them. I appreciated his humor. I appreciated that he didn’t attack Trump when he had the opportunity. I appreciated his shying away from the spotlight as that supports his authenticity. But, I was hoping for a bit more. This didn’t come through for me last night.
Goldilocks says: Too Soft(spoken). Too cold.
Donald Trump: Donald was the second bear. He came out slinging at the very first opportunity and didn’t back down. He came across as arrogant and wanting to hog the spotlight. He was stubborn and arrogant. He interrupted. He was rude. He faltered a few times (e.g., around foreign policy) and struggled to regain his composure (e.g., cringe-worthy when he made an awkward out-of-place comment calling Carly beautiful). These traits typically don’t bode well for a leader trying to earn respect in an organization (or from a country). How are those skills going to help him build alignment and engagement within our government? How is he going to leverage those skills to influence leaders around the globe? You can only go so far leading with a heavy stick and a bag of money.
Goldilocks says: Too Hard(headed). Too hot.
Carly Fiorina: Carly was the third bear. She took on those attacking her (namely Trump) with finesse and poise. She captured the crowd with her sincere responses. She articulated her points clearly. She showed emotion, passion, restraint, and intelligence. She was confident, but not cocky. She was feisty, but not fiery. Carly showed an ability to be assertive and reflective. She stood up for herself, but didn’t succumb to slinging mud. She stayed true to who she is and portrayed an authentic leader who doesn’t fold under pressure. She articulated her experience, and its relevance. She didn’t pretend to know it all.
Goldilocks says: Just Right! (In fact, she was beyond, “just right” and many analysts said she earned the title as the breakout star of the night).
Time will tell. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) we have another 13 months of this to look forward to! Heck, we haven’t even seen a debate amongst the Democratic candidates yet. At the end of the day, I don’t know who will make the best President. I do know this: there is more to being President of the United States of America (and more to being a great Leader) than simply knowing how to handle yourself at a nationally televised debate. Hang on folks … the ride is just beginning!