2 Valuable Leadership Lessons from an Ugly Presidential Election

Like many of you, I thoroughly appreciated the thoughtfulness, rationality, and unifying nature of the recent presidential election.

As I was reflecting on how much everyone seemed to enjoy the entire election process and subsequent goodwill it created, a remarkable idea came to me. I thought, “why don’t I write a post that brings the election back up since people clearly haven’t had enough of it?”

Here's a bright idea... bring the 2016 Presidential Election back up and see who you can make angry!

Here's a bright idea... bring the 2016 Presidential Election back up and see who you can make angry!

Sarcasm aside, I do believe there is something useful we can learn from the election, although I’m not going to focus on anything in the political arena. Instead, I’d like to talk about leadership issues that seemed to plague the candidates throughout the process. I’m specifically referring to two key leadership attributes where both candidates demonstrated obvious and consistent weaknesses: self-awareness and trustworthiness.

Now, before you get worked up and tell me that I’m singling out your preferred candidate, please note that I am critiquing them equally. They both were challenged in these areas, and I believe these deficiencies directly harmed their effectiveness and opportunity to succeed. These characteristics stood out (and likely contributed to their historically low levels of likability) in spite of both candidates having long and distinguished careers in their respective fields.

Why bring this up now when the election is over? Because I believe that the leadership lessons we can learn are relevant, useful, and timely. Through constant exposure and media attention over the past several months, the candidates became like living case studies. Honing in on their struggles with these key leadership traits can help us reflect on our own leadership styles and assess opportunities to grow and improve.

Let’s take a look at the attributes of self-awareness and trustworthiness, address what they are, why they are important, how to spot deficiencies, and identify actions you can take to strengthen your own leadership in each area.

Can Self-Awareness Predict Success and Happiness?

Self-awareness is the ability to know one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values, and goals. Further, it is an understanding of how one’s behaviors and beliefs affect others. Self-awareness is one of the cornerstones of Emotional Intelligence (EI). Many leadership experts believe that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ as a predictor of success, quality of relationships, and overall happiness.

Someone with a high degree of self-awareness is able to see themselves objectively. In other words, they have a realistic understanding of how others perceive them. A leader with high self-awareness will demonstrate a balance of confidence and humility as well as thoughtfulness and conviction. They welcome feedback (and even criticism), take responsibility for their actions, and listen carefully to others. They don’t take themselves too seriously and often have a self-deprecating sense of humor.

Where Low Self-Awareness Goes Wrong

Here are some hallmarks of people with low self-awareness:

  • They are defensive, thin-skinned, quick to anger, and can’t tolerate any criticism.
  • They are extremely assertive with their ideas and positions while disregarding the feelings of others.
  • They blame others for their issues, make excuses, and deflect responsibility for their failures.

Did you spot any of these behaviors in the candidates? If your answer is no, my second question is “what planet do you live on?” I’m sure you can think of many examples of one or both of the candidates demonstrating low self-awareness without me having to point out any specific examples.

Why does this matter? Because leaders with low self-awareness are prone to damaging relationships, increasing unhelpful conflict, disregarding other’s viewpoints and perspectives, and fostering divisiveness.

A Quick Check to Ensure You Have High Self-Awareness

Do you recognize aspects of low self-awareness in yourself? (Of course, the irony is that the people who struggle the most in this area are also the ones who are least likely to recognize their weakness.) In addition to the behaviors listed above, some subtle signs that you may have an opportunity to improve your emotional intelligence and awareness include:

  • You think “feelings” are overrated, and that people should “suck it up” when they don’t agree with you.
  • You quickly become frustrated with others and judge them harshly for any mistakes.
  • You find yourself constantly wearing others out as you press your beliefs and views.
  • You sometimes act without thinking and struggle to regulate your anger.
Sometimes you need to take an honest look in the mirror, even if the reflection isn't something you want to see.

Sometimes you need to take an honest look in the mirror, even if the reflection isn't something you want to see.

If you’ve come to the realization that you can benefit from improved self-awareness, try one or more of the following steps:

  1. Ask for honest feedback from your boss, colleagues, reports, friends, and family members. Listen carefully to what they have to say and accept the feedback without arguing. Ask for specific examples of what you have done well and where they feel you are struggling. Fight the urge to be defensive. Reframe any “criticism” as helpful information that you can use to improve. If asking for direct feedback is uncomfortable or you don’t feel like you’ll get an honest answer, use a 360 Degree Feedback tool that will allow others provide input anonymously. You can also seek other psychometric tests (MBTI, DISC, etc.) that will give you more insight to your personality type and tendencies.
  2. Build-in time for self-reflection. This can be as simple as taking 10 – 15 minutes each day to clear your mind, think about your decisions and actions, and reflect on how you interacted with others. Assess where you acted maturely and thoughtfully as well as where you may have been harsh or judgmental. Ask yourself, “what would I like to do differently next time?” For some, journaling is an effective reflection technique.
  3. Become a better listener. Commit to being more intentional about how you listen to others. This post will provide concrete steps you can take to become more empathetic and engaged with your listening. Be willing to ask powerful questions to increase your curiosity while reducing judgment and fostering input from others.
  4. Develop defenses against emotional hijacks. Pay more attention to physical cues that let you know you are building up anger and frustration. When you feel a wave of strong emotion coming on, take back control of the “thinking” part of your brain and avoid self-defeating outbursts by asking yourself the questions “what am I trying to accomplish?” and “how should I act if I want to achieve my goals?”

The 5 Traits of Trustworthy Behavior

Trust is an essential building block of leadership, and it lies at the heart of all meaningful relationships. A leader is responsible for inspiring and earning trust over time by acting reliably and showing character. Trustworthy behaviors can be further broken down into the following areas:

  • Competency – Demonstrating that you have the requisite skills and experience for your position and proving that you are able to get results.
  • Integrity – Doing what is right even when it is not easy, making ethical decisions, telling the truth in all situations, and admitting when mistakes have been made.
  • Consistency – Following through on commitments, doing what you say you are going to do, making decisions and holding others accountable.
  • Clarity – Being authentic and open about your motives and expectations.
  • Empathy – Showing a sincere interest in relationships, actively listening, and valuing the contributions of others.

When Leaders Lose Trust...

It is easy to see when a leader loses trust. Even if the leader is experienced, technically skilled, and has great ideas and resources, people will always question their motives and second-guess their intentions. Leaders develop a reputation as untrustworthy when they:

  • Lack transparency
  • Take shortcuts
  • Hold themselves to a different standard than they hold others
  • Refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and mistakes
  • Throw others under the bus to preserve themselves

I’ll ask again, did you spot any of these behaviors in the candidates? If your answer is no, I’d like to know what you’ve been smoking since the election process started! There are numerous and obvious examples that you are free to pick from and contemplate.

Why does this matter? Well, we asserted that trust is foundational to leadership. When we have candidates that have shown long patterns of untrustworthy behavior and a lack of sincerity about improving, it fuels disloyalty, lack of engagement, skepticism, and frustration.

A Quick Check to Make Certain You are Trustworthy

People will look at what you say and do to determine if they can trust you and your intentions.

People will look at what you say and do to determine if they can trust you and your intentions.

Do you feel that your actions (or lack thereof) have damaged your reputation and the trust you have with others? If so, don’t despair; it is possible to recover and repair your relationships if you are willing to take some deliberate steps to rebuild your trustworthiness. Steven Covey provides an excellent framework for establishing trust in his “13 Behaviors of High-Trust Leaders Worldwide.” They are:

  1. Talk Straight
  2. Demonstrate Respect
  3. Create Transparency
  4. Right Wrongs
  5. Show Loyalty
  6. Deliver Results
  7. Get Better
  8. Confront Reality
  9. Clarify Expectations
  10. Practice Accountability
  11. Listen First
  12. Keep Commitments
  13. Extend Trust

Check out this handy reference sheet that defines each of these behaviors. Ask yourself, “on which of these behaviors do I need to improve?” Pick out one or more key relationships where you’d like to develop trust and plan specific actions that will help you move your trust needle in the right direction.

Learning From an (Ugly and Painful) Election

The election may have been painful, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. And while I didn’t set out to write a post for the sake of bashing the candidates, I did feel strongly that these two leadership areas jumped out as glaring weaknesses worthy of further exploration and reflection.

Do you agree that these were prominent leadership themes throughout the election? Are you working on aspects of your own self-awareness and trustworthiness? Are you dealing with others that have challenges in these areas? Post your thoughts, questions, and comments below and, as always, we’ll be happy to respond.

References and Additional Resources

  1. http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/emotional-intelligence-why-important.html
  2. http://lifehacker.com/the-importance-of-self-awareness-and-how-to-become-mor-1624744518
  3. https://hbr.org/2014/12/signs-that-you-lack-emotional-intelligence
  4. http://www.inc.com/steve-tobak/7-signs-youre-not-as-self-aware-as-you-think.html
  5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/you-according-them/201310/the-high-price-self-awareness
  6. http://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2016/05/08/5-signs-of-high-emotional-intelligence/#e4c4b78c539c
  7. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-is-your-true-north/201509/know-thyself-how-develop-self-awareness
  8. https://hbr.org/2015/02/5-ways-to-become-more-self-aware
  9. http://www.leadershipnow.com/CoveyOnTrust.html
  10. http://www.inc.com/susan-steinbrecher/7-traits-of-a-trustworthy-leader.html
  11. http://www.forbes.com/sites/forbesleadershipforum/2012/10/24/you-cant-be-a-great-leader-without-trust-heres-how-you-build-it/#7b6999ed7a48
  12. https://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/20-habits-of-untrustworthy-leaders/
  13. http://99u.com/articles/32883/the-most-important-skill-for-great-leaders-trustworthiness
  14. https://www.franklincovey.com/facilitator/minisessions/handouts/13_Behaviors_MiniSession_Handout.pdf

About the Author

Seth Sinclair

Seth Sinclair is a leadership coach, management consultant, trainer, and facilitator with a passion for helping his clients achieve their personal and professional goals. Reach out by emailing him at seth@moderndavinci.net or learn more on our About page.