Why Leadership Coaching Matters—A Lesson Learned the Hard Way

During the 1990’s the professional political consultant emerged as a definitive player in American politics. As a young woman in this burgeoning field this was the time I first encountered the men who are now the top advisers to our nation’s leaders. We sat around tables in shabby campaign headquarters and airport restaurants discussing the path to victory for our candidates. Even then the seeds of my passion were clear: authentic leadership, clear communication and real world results as the path to victory. Unfortunately, my approach was usually overridden by the lure of massive television ad campaigns and scathing attacks on the opponent.

After loosing numerous battles (and too many heart-breaking races) I left the day-to-day life of a professional politico and embarked on my current path to improve the quality of leadership in our public bodies by developing individual leadership skills. Many of my former counterparts are now ensconced in and around the halls of power and their win-at-all-costs attitudes are a large factor in the political morass in which we currently find our country—and in President Obama’s case the perilous state of his campaign.

The latest Pew Research Poll revels that Governor Romney pulled ahead of President Obama after his dismal performance in last week’s debate. (http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/08/us-usa-campaign-poll-idUSBRE8931E420121008) Anyone watching the debate could see that the President’s demeanor and preparation focused on the belief that Romney’s policies and persona had doomed him to defeat. There was absolutely nothing in the President’s presentation that revealed his passion for the position and his desire to move forward on his vision. He was there to vanquish an inferior opponent and his arrogance may have cost him the campaign.

But it wasn’t just his misinterpretation of the situation that got him here. His advisers had crafted a path victory paved with micro-targeted voters bombarded with tailored wedge issues rather creating a message based in the belief that ultimately the candidates who prevail are inspired leaders courageous enough to share their vision and values with the voters. Authentic leaders are not just after a job or a victory they are passionately committed to creating real and sustained change in the world regardless of the title or position they may hold at the time. While Romney certainly didn’t exhibit this level of leadership in the debate, he allowed his very real disdain for Obama and his policies to come through.

Which bring us to the most tragic part of this story, that ultimately Obama’s vision for America is the path we need to take. He understands the need to bring everyone along, to find ways to weave together the best of the public and private sectors and to create a future where communities are built on equality and prosperity and not the pursuit of the almighty dollar. This is the real Obama—a man with a history of overcoming challenges and doing so as he helped others along. He is a man who has created a solid family and a prosperous life from humble beginnings and he had the strength to pursue he vision all the way to the White House. And that is where the story goes wrong, because in that place he allowed his insecurities about “how Washington works” to overtake his vision for how it can be better.

That was the Obama that was on display last week and that is the Obama that destroyed what should have been an easy saunter to the finish line. Now Obama and his advisers much retrench, figure out how to better attack and show the voters the “real” Romney. Too bad this approach will squeeze every bit of humanity out of the race and leave voters beleaguered heading into Election Day.

What a sad turn of events from four years ago, when record numbers of people turned out to vote for a new day, a new face and a President who would do it differently. That is the “real” Obama, one that has been hidden this term and it is the one that if I were sitting around the table with him that I would say needs to be fully present in the final weeks of the campaign.

I have spent the past two decades honing my ability to see the best in others and helping them communicate what this is to those around them so that they can achieve their vision. It is not a skill people have to learn, rather it is an experience that once someone has it they can never go back to pretending to be someone else. What I wouldn’t give for an hour with President Obama and the chance to see what he could accomplish as a man true to himself. Not only would it change the course of this election, it could change the course of our country. For without leaders true to themselves in service to others, the road ahead looks long and dark indeed.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Well-written, Kathleen. Regardless of a person’s political stripes, there are lessons to be learned from the debate last week. Putting back on your political consultant cap (just for a couple minutes), what are three things that you would coach Obama to do in the next debate?

Joe Flood

Obama’s problem is not one of communications. He has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in ads reaching out to the public. He’s appeared on nearly every TV show, including The View and David Letterman, time and time again. All the communication in the world won’t change the fact that people are unhappy with the state of the country. He needed to change his policies, not his messaging, and he should’ve done that two years ago.

Kathleen Schafer

Thanks Andrew! I don’t mind the political consulting hat when candidates want to be great leaders and win, instead of just wanting to win at all costs. That being said, the three keys of effective communication I use with all my clients are:

1. Be real: this is more that being glib and relaxed, it is knowing yourself intimately and being willing to share all of who you are, so that comfort, eloquence and power come from your core

2. Use your body language to illustrate your message: sounds simple and yet so much of how we take in information has nothing to do with the precise words and much more to do with how they are delivered. Ultimately people who are comfortable in the own skin make remarkable speakers.

3. Organize your thoughts around a main theme and three key points. What is it that Obama wants us to know about him as a leader? What three things support that message? Yes, he has many areas and issues to cover and with the right coach they all can be organized so that those listening can take them in and actually remember them.

And yes, I would love to have just one hour to coach Obama before the next debate!

Kathleen Schafer

Joe . . . I agree Obama spends millions on advertising and with the wrong message it ultimately doesn’t work. Effective leaders reach across the spectrum to develop solutions and it takes leadership to make that happen and it starts with knowing who you are and communicating it to others.

John Peppard

Kathleen: I am so invested in the relection of BO, but as a professional and fan of “Andrew K”, my three tips for BO would be:

1. Have a game plan

2. Make points with stories

3. Above all – Be engaged with NRG!