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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

What Managers Can Learn from the Clintons

Let me first say that I am no fan of either Bill or Hillary Clinton. My idea of Hillary as Commander in Chief is this; imagine your wife in a terrible "I told you so" or "I know best" mood... for eight years... with Army Rangers to back her up. But again I could be wrong...

But this post isn't about politics other than using two amazing politicians as an example. The seldom-told secret of how either of these two made it to power really rests in a rare dynamic within their campaigns. It is something managers could do well to learn and replicate.

  1. They empower someone in their inner circle to tell them the brutal truth, no matter what the topic.
  2. They act immediately to counter or capitalize on that truth.
Here are some examples. During the first Bill Clinton campaign his staff planned contingencies around what his inner circle labeled "bimbo eruptions"; revelations from young women who might claim to have known him well. Each time a Jennifer Flowers or Paula Jones dropped out of the closet, the campaign immediately responded with supportive quotes from Hillary about the strength of their marriage followed by less than flattering information, pre-researched and pre-written, about the accuser. The end result was that the young women came across as looking for money and attention, and Bill became President.

After Barack Obama's upset win in Iowa, Hillary's staff told her she came across to voters and cold and aloof. A week later in New Hampshire...tears for the camera and a landslide win from higher voter turnout, especially from women. Several weeks later, beaten badly on Super Tuesday, the campaign again delivered the bad news that young women were voting overwhelmingly for Obama, who himself was running a weak campaign with white, working class, rust-belt voters. From that came the rebirth of Hillary as "Rosie the Riveter: Champion of the Working Class" and big wins in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky that have kept her campaign on life support.

These amazing feats, and "Clinton spin" cannot be described accurately as anything less than amazing, all started with brutal candor from supportive insiders. Imagine this was your job; you get to go to your boss and say, "Sir, we've heard that you've had several extramarital affairs. We need to know the details about these women so we can research them and respond to future rumors". Or, in the Hillary example, "Ma'am, the workforce feels that you're a cold, uncaring elitist. We need a strategy to warm your image up a bit".

How many of you in staff positions would have the backbone for that job? Conversely, how many of you who manage people have someone on staff to perform this same service for you? Make no mistake, this is a service and an important one.

If you want to manage your personal corporate image, or the rumor mill on any topic, you must have someone who can speak the brutal truth to you while still having your back. If you don't have someone like this already, find someone loyal and give them permission to be truthful; brutally truthful if necessary. If you're a staff member, work your way into this type of position with your boss, or find someone for whom you can work who will value this service.

I have two people like this on staff and I include them in those times when I count my blessings.


Luke Gedeon said...

Wow! Whoever has that job in HRC's campaign, would make a great write-in candidate. :)

Anonymous said...

I take it from your first paragraph comments about Hillary Clinton that you must know her personally. Either that or you have the power to render yourself invisible and spy on them and their marriage. Either impressive!

Jim Thomason said...


Of course not, and that's not the point of the post. The Clinton reference was a setup for a discussion of why managers, including your manager, should empower someone to speak candidly to them. I welcome comments on the subject matter of my posts, even and especially those who disagree. Feel free to come out from behind your anonymity and let's discuss the workplace instead of throwing insults, shall we?

Bussta Brown said...

Jim, another good trait in a manager is attention to detail. You wrote this post on 5/21/2008. Surely by now there has been sufficient time to observe the correct spelling of Obama's first name as Barack and not "Barak".

Also, are you recommending the use of deception and falsehood as admirable traits?

Jim Thomason said...

I stand corrected on the spelling and have corrected it; thanks much.

As for the use of deception and falsehood, of course I don't condone or recommend such practices. The admirable behavior is cultivating an inner circle with permission to be brutally honest. What the leader does with that information is a whole other matter and not the subject of my post.

Thanks again,