Our Longing for Good Leaders

For any of you who haven’t yet figured this out: I’m very much a supporter of Barack Obama, and in fact, have already cast my absentee ballot for him. Given that, I suspect the observations I’m about to share aren’t entirely objective. But I still think they’re accurate. I’ll let you be the judge.

As I’ve watched Obama continue to maintain and solidify his lead in the polls over the past month, I’ve noticed that many commentators ascribe it to factors entirely extrinsic to the candidate: bad economic times favor the Democrats; people are disgusted with Bush; John McCain shot himself in the foot by choosing Sarah Palin (or by acting weird in the debates, or by behaving erratically in response to the financial crisis); McCain’s strong suit – foreign policy – is less important now; Colin Powell’s endorsement calmed people’s fears about Obama’s lack of military and foreign policy experience; people are sick of negative campaigning (Bill Ayers, et al); etc. etc.
Some or all of those things may be true.  And yet, I think there is at least one very important element, something simpler and more elemental, something within the man himself, that the pundits seem, for the most part, to be ignoring.  Let me say it simply:  I think the majority of the voting public has come to believe that Obama looks, feels and sounds and acts more like a leader than McCain.
Human beings, I believe, are hardwired to sort for certain attributes in their leaders.  Until fairly recently in history, selecting the right leader was a matter of life and death. Natural selection favored those who chose well: they lived in greater numbers to procreate.
Certain “good leader” traits show themselves again and again, in history, in myth, in folk and fairy tales. I posted last February explaining my understanding of these traits, so I’ll just note here why I believe Obama is demonstrating them and McCain isn’t.
People want leaders who are Far-sighted.  When Obama speaks, he articulates his vision of a positive future for America in a way that is both compelling and inclusive.  McCain, though he may hold such a vision, tends to speak instead about how the downsides of Obama’s vision. This doesn’t come across as far-sighted.
People want leaders who are Passionate, and by this I don’t mean volume or rhetoric, I mean a depth and consistency of commitment to achieving their vision. Obama continues to focus on the issues that he believes are essential to achieving his vision of the future, regardless of what the Republicans, or external circumstances, throw at him.  He is, as Colin Powell noted last Sunday, “steady.” McCain, on the other hand, has acted in ways that are so inconsistent as to seem almost haphazard.
People want leaders who are Courageous and Trustworthy. Obama consistently responds to attacks and setbacks with calmness, poise, clarity and dignity – which people interpret as courage and trustworthiness.  McCain – though he is in many ways a very courageous man – has, by resorting to an almost exclusively negative approach to campaigning, caused himself to appear both not courageous and untrustworthy; most people interpret character attacks as “back-stabbing” – the act of a coward.
People want leaders who are Wise. They want leaders who are thoughtful, who reflect on and grow from their mistakes, who acknowledge the strengths of their adversaries and learn from them, who look for common ground.  Obama has consistently behaved in these ways, especially in the presidential debates. McCain looks angry, erratic, reactive vs. reflective; like someone who would throw a punch – physically and metaphorically – rather than taking the time to seek the best solution.
People want leaders who are Generous.  Obama has run, by every account, an extraordinarily well-managed campaign. Both his staffers and the many thousands of volunteers are almost uniformly enthusiastic and positive, not only about their candidate, but about their experience working in his organization. People assume that happy followers result from generous leaders: generous with time, money, praise, support, direction.  McCain, in contrast, seems to have had a difficult time pulling together a strong on-the-ground team, and has appeared both bitter and condescending toward his opponent, two characteristics which strongly translate to people as ungenerous.
Today I watched a youtube video of a woman in New Hampshire, a Republican who has decided to vote for Obama, and when she tried to explain why, she said two things that support this sense I have that people are seeing him as the leader they want:
“By the third debate, I was sure.  I think first of all, when Barack Obama came walking out on stage, he gave me that presence of a President.”
“…I think in the long run, he’s going to do what’s best for me and my family.”
And that’s the bottom line: People want leaders – not only of nations, but of companies as well – who they think will put the welfare of those they lead first; who will consistently choose to do what’s best for the group, rather than simply what’s best for themselves.
Posted in Leading People

About Erika Andersen

Over the past 30 years, Erika has developed a reputation for creating approaches to learning and business-building that are custom tailored to her clients’ challenges, goals, and culture.

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