posted 27 Jun 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 9
Ten mistakes transformational leaders make
By Steve Denning
In the US presidential campaign of 2000, Al Gore’s robotic performances became the fodder of late-night comedy shows. He didn’t necessarily have a bad message, but his delivery and manner arguably cost him the election.
Yet six years later, Gore was filling cinemas across the world with his environmental PowerPoint presentation, An Inconvenient Truth. Why did Gore fail so badly in 2000, yet become a big hit in 2006? Simple – he failed to understand the language of leadership during the election and committed ten common leadership mistakes.
Mistake #1: An unclear, uninspiring goal
The first debate attracted 90 million viewers, many tuning into the campaign for the first time. But Gore overwhelmed them with references to some eleven new government programmes in the first two minutes of debate, instantly overloading his audience. He had no clear, overriding message;
Mistake #2: Lack of total commitment for change
“I’m not a very exciting politician,” admitted Gore in the first debate. That was probably true, but it also confirmed people’s belief that he lacked faith in himself;
Mistake #3: Inappropriate body language
The debate was Gore’s opportunity to step out of the shadow of his predecessor and, if he could connect well enough with voters, the election was his to lose. Yet although he was articulate, his mannerisms turned people off. When his opponent spoke he sighed and rolled his eyes. People perceived him to be overbearing, officious and hectoring;
Mistake #4: Misreading the audience
In 2000, the US was prospering and the electorate was largely satisfied with the administration that Gore had been a part of for eight years. Yet he all he presented were problems and promises to solve them with big government programmes – something the US electorate has a general aversion to;
Mistake #5: Lack of narrative intelligence
Gore talked in facts and figures, detail and complexity. People often connect better with stories. Yet Gore’s stories were poorly told, often did not ring true or were found to be exaggerated;
Mistake #6: Not telling the truth
One incorrect or implausible claim or story is a forgivable mistake, but three or four looks like a bad habit and undermines trust;
Mistake #7: Misdirected attention
While Gore used stories to underline the importance of the programmes he proposed, they only served to highlight the question, ‘why didn’t you do something about it when you were vice president?’
Mistake #8: Inability to elicit desire for change
While Gore proposed changed, the voters in 2000 were, by and large, contented and neither wanted, nor saw the need for, radical change. He talked of problems when he should have talked about solutions;
Mistake #9: Backfiring reasons
When Frank Luntz worked on Ross Perot’s presidential campaign in 1992, he ran focus groups to test Perot’s TV ad’s – a biography first, a Perot speech and then testimonials. The results were good. Yet when he accidentally ran them in reverse order, viewers did not like Perot at all – his opinions seemed intemperate without the foundation of his rags-to-riches story. The motto: the order in which you give people information influences how they think and their connection to the subject;
Mistake #10: The conversation died…
Leadership communications begin as a monologue, but turn into a dialogue and conversation if they are successful. That conversation emerges as a result of enthusiasm for the vision of change. But all Al Gore promised in 2000 was a lot of fighting – for the ‘little guy’ against big oil, big insurance companies and so on.
The difference in language between his election campaign of 2000 and his film of 2006 is striking. An Inconvenient Truth is not all environmental doom. True, it gets the audience’s attention with some alarming stories about global warming, but it also inspires action by pointing to examples where global problems have been successfully tackled. Gore seems a warmer, more relaxed and authentic individual. By 2006, he has learned the language of leadership..
Steve Denning is a knowledge-management specialist and author of a number of big-selling books on KM and business narrative. The latest, The Secret Language of Leadership will be released in October. To contact Denning, please e-mail email@example.com.