Statesmen Cry, Too. How vulnerability can help leaders win elections.
In Australia, the country of my birth, the car of choice for diplomats and prime ministers used to be the Holden Statesman, a sedate land-yacht painted white for government service and black for drug dealers and funeral directors.
Judging by the chaotic first presidential debate, US President Donald Trump would drive a metallic red Statesman with comic-book flames shooting up the hood. He would also have the muffler ripped out, so we could hear him coming 5 miles away. Still, if he lived in my street for nearly four years, I wouldn’t rush to the Venetian blinds every time he drove past; I would wince, shrug and keep washing the dishes.
With the US election less than 30 days away, I suspect most people have grown familiar to the sound of Trump’s exhaust. His combative debating style has become part of the soundtrack of our lives. For many, it’s proof that he’s a leader who says what he thinks, not a career politician with a smooth outer wrapping for public consumption. His raw, unfiltered approach to speaking draws his supporters closer to him; they see him as a straight shooter who has their backs. And they view his portrayal as a flamboyant liar in the liberal media as an unfair double standard. Which politician doesn’t lie? Even Barack Obama, a president widely admired for his integrity and oratory skills, could be elastic with the truth.
Joe Biden’s staunchest supporters may have detested Trump’s bullying tactics during the debate, but they can’t say they were surprised. While his stance on important issues is mercurial at best, there is one constant that defines Trump’s communication with the world at large; he must always win. Without exception.
Although recently diagnosed with COVID-19, Trump left the hospital briefly to conduct a drive-by, waving at supporters from his bombproof SUV less than three days after being admitted. Once discharged, he insisted on removing his mask and waving to the press from the balcony of the White House, now classified as a super-spreader site. Doctors watching Trump’s appearance noted that he was struggling to breathe, despite him speculating online that he may be immune to the disease.
To me, this sequence of events reveals a man prepared to risk his life to save his face. Given he is an obese, 74-year-old recovering from a serious illness, this will become increasingly harder to do. And I’m not sure whether swing voters appreciate how he downplays a virus killing over 210,000 Americans before infecting himself, his wife and several members of his inner circle.
Would it be political suicide for Trump to admit that he needs to take better care of his health, or that his administration’s handling of COVID-19 is far from perfect? It may surprise you to hear it, but I don’t think so.
Through my company Think.Story.Speak, I conduct presentation skills training with leaders from diverse backgrounds. I often advise them that showing vulnerability at strategic moments can be persuasive in a crisis. Instead of denying they make mistakes, it is far more credible to admit to them, before offering a decisive plan to fix them.
This approach doesn’t mean they have to engage in a public confessional, admitting to a laundry list of shortcomings before breaking into tears, falling to their knees and begging for forgiveness. Apart from being scary to watch, it wouldn’t inspire much confidence in their abilities.
As a leader, being persuasive isn’t always about projecting strength; it is possible to speak with confidence while leaving space for empathy and emotion.
During his time as president, Barack Obama often revealed his feelings during moments of crisis, including the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. Nobody, on either side of the political spectrum, could claim that he was weak to shed tears while talking about the senseless death of small children.
And Obama was not beyond saying he failed to decisively intervene in Libya’s violent uprising in 2011, which led to the deaths of two US diplomats.
By contrast, Trump seems unwilling to share his feelings about the severe loss of life and livelihoods experienced by ordinary Americans during the pandemic. He also refuses to share accountability for his administration’s missteps while fighting a health crisis of unprecedented scale.
Instead, I believe it would cost Trump nothing if he spoke with more empathy about the number of Americans who have died or lost their jobs. And it would cost him relatively little to admit to specific failings, reflect on the lessons learned and point towards credible solutions.
Finally, I think it will cost him dearly not to share responsibility for the spread of infection or claim that catching COVID-19 did not pose a risk to his health.
If Trump did drive a Statesman, then nobody would expect him to paint it baby blue and adorn it with Hello Kitty bumper stickers. That said, the least he could do is stop blowing hot air when people are hurting, not to mention preparing to vote.
I’m guessing it’s too late for Trump to learn this lesson but understand this: people view communication as shorthand for leadership and a little vulnerability goes a long way. Remember that when you’re travelling in the back of a bulletproof limousine.
Paul Falzon is the Director of Think.Story.Speak, a Singapore-based training company and consultancy that offers customised presentation skills courses.