Leadership Lessons from Bernie Sanders

The current U.S. Democratic and Republican nominee races are, if nothing else, entertaining and unexpected. Yet independent of political platforms, leadership fundamentals can explain much of the phenomena we are witnessing; in particular, the (what the media calls ‘surprising’) success of Bernie Sanders campaign. When examined under the lens of leadership, it was almost predictable.
In a research survey conducted globally and multiple times since 1987, respondents were asked to select seven qualities they “most look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow.” The top four, (which never changed throughout repeated surveys) were: Honesty (always scored highest), and in this order, forward-looking, competent, and inspiring. (1) As long as people believed a leader possessed those traits, they would willingly follow that person.
A quick look at Sanders history shows not only strength in each category, but unusual consistency of policy, ideology, and voting record over his 40-year career. Agree with him or not, he cannot be accused of flip-flop tactics, or of acting contrary to his stated beliefs, which lends great credibility to his messaging, and has inspired formerly disconnected and cynical voters back into the fray. With Congress’s favorability rating in the low single digits, it is not surprising that disenfranchised voters would fall in behind a Beltway outsider; so far over 2 million of them, making 6 million small donations averaging $27.00.
Similarly, Stanford lecturer Jim Collins wrote about what he called Level 5 leaders, the most notable characteristics of which are, paradoxically, intense professional will, and deep personal humility. (2) Sanders campaign from the outset announced that there would be no attack ads; that they would take the high road of setting the agenda around really important national issues, and focusing only on them. His approach with all people, including the media, has been respectful and courteous, displaying a humility unusual at that political level. In fact, he has even cautioned Americans that neither he, nor anyone else elected President, will alone be capable of resolving the monumental challenges currently facing the country. He advises that only a collaborative effort, including a revitalized Congress, can deliver solutions. Yet as we see in the debates (which he had to force on the DNC), his humility does not mean he is a pushover. His fierce will to table the crucial issues, stay on message, and engage in vigorous debate to educate the voters, is anything but passive. Intense professional will; deep personal humility.
Result: he has gone from a ‘fringe candidate’ whom the media joked about, to winning seven of the last eight states’ caucuses and primaries. National polls indicate he defeats Trump by far higher margins than would Clinton.
Whether Sanders can win the Presidency or not remains to be seen. What is certain, is that without demonstrating those proven leadership characteristics, his campaign would never have gotten this far.
What might be the implications of this for leaders in the corporate sector? Do the same leadership traits still apply? Deliver superior results? Former TD CEO Ed Clark once observed “It’s incredible how much energy and power is out there on the front lines if they think you are a true believer too.” Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz recently observed of Americans: “Broken promises, void of truth in leadership have led to a fracturing of trust and confidence not only in our elected officials but in our institutions.” They have “cynicism, despair, division, exclusion, fear and yes, indifference.” (3) Indifference? We are all most familiar with the pathetic employee disengagement statistics cited in so many recent surveys. Yet Schultz’s, (possibly a Level 5 leader) latest results at Starbucks include $3.6 billion profit on $19.2 billion revenue. Not too shabby.
Perhaps the Sanders phenomenon could inspire leaders in all organizations to conduct a personal mirror check on those six leadership characteristics:
• Does my own agenda align with that of the organization? Is it perceived that way?
• Have I set a vision for the company that resonates with and includes employees?
• Do I walk my talk?
• Am I perceived as honest? credible? humble?
• Do employees truly believe that I’m sufficiently committed and strong-willed to pull off the vision?
Often, when the answer to these questions is ‘no, or not really’, it’s by default rather than design. These traits are easy to overlook, and sometimes call for painful personal growth. Yet the data show that as we work to master them, employees connect and deliver better performance.
Honesty, forward thinking, competent, inspiring, professional will, and personal humility: these have enabled Bernie Sanders to make a serious leadership run that eight months ago, no one believed possible. Business research directly correlates leadership behaviours with superior performance, further justifying any efforts to improve our leadership capabilities. It’s well worth our looking in the leadership mirror.
Now you may ask “What about Trump?” but that’s a blog for another day.
1. Kouzes, Jim, and Posner, Barry, The Leadership Challenge, Wiley & Sons, 2002
2. Collins, Jim, Good to Great, William Collins, 2001
3. http://www.ozy.com/provocateurs/coffee-schmoffee-can-starbucks-ceo-fix-america/68786?utm_source=pdb&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=04062016&variable=fc95adf184889ca9b9aa26fe1ff12300

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