Executive Coach Executive CoachExecutive Coach
Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

Leadership Questions Raised by the 2009 Elections


The morning after election day 2009 was probably not a particularly fun one in the White House. As noted in a first rate summary by John F. Harris and Jonathan Martin in Politico, the outcomes of the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races and even the New York City's mayor race didn't really go the President's way. As an historical analysis by Ruth Marcus in the Washington Post points out, it's important to not over interpret the results, but one thing about the 2009 election results does seem clear. Voters who identify themselves as independents are looking for leaders who seem to address the issues that are most important to them.

As an example, since I live in Virginia, I had a pretty direct line of sight into the governor's race here. The winner, Bob McDonnell, ran a very effective straight down the middle campaign centered on jobs, transportation, taxes and government spending. His opponent, Creigh Deeds, seemed to never get any traction on explaining exactly what his priorities would be if he was governor. (See Dan Balz's post election analysis in the Washington Post for more on this.)

In connecting the dots on the different races, I find myself looking for some common denominator lessons we can learn about effective leadership communications. After all, that's what a campaign is ultimately about. In reviewing this week's results, I've come up with four questions that I think leaders need to address either implicitly or explicitly if they hope to win over their followers. These strike me as important questions for any leader - not just political candidates - to address when they're attempting to mobilize people in a challenging situation. Here are the questions:

Who are you? - As I wrote earlier this week, followers make up stories about leaders. One of the first jobs of a leader is to define the terms of the story by answering the question, "Who is this guy or gal?" In Virginia, Bob McDonnell put a lot of time and effort into providing his own answer to that question - a moderate, reasonable guy concerned about the economy and transportation. Creigh Deeds on the other hand spent most of his time and attention trying to define Bob McDonnell and very little time defining himself for the voters. The result was a 18% defeat for Deeds. As a leader, you have to have a story about yourself that connects with people.

So what? - Closely related to the "Who is this guy?" question is the "So what?" question. The leaders who are most successful in mobilizing followers are tuned into the "So what?" question and address that in their messaging. In a low turnout election, the winners did a better job of answering, "So what?" For McDonnell in Virginia, it was transportation and jobs. For Christie in New Jersey, it was property taxes and a long term culture of corruption. Simple, focused messages that address a real "So what?" usually win the day.

Do you respect me? - One of the biggest surprises of election day was that New York mayor Mike Bloomberg won by a very thin margin after spending $100 million of his own money against a relatively unknown and underfunded candidate. (Politico has the story.) You could argue that his narrow victory was a message that the voters didn't feel respected by Bloomberg after he had term limits overturned and acted as if he was entitled to the office. People don't want to feel taken for granted. They want to feel respected. Likewise, the reaction to Jon Corzine's television ads implying that Chris Christie was too fat to be governor probably left a lot of people besides Chris Christie feeling disrespected.

How does the drama help me? - I'm exposing my mega political junkie mode here, but the outcome of the 23rd congressional district election in New York was pretty interesting to me. As reported in Politico, this is the one where the nominee of the Republican party was deemed by Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and others to not be conservative enough to bear the mantle. She was forced out and threw her support to the Democrat in the race who eventually won over the conservative third party candidate who assumed full GOP support when the original nominee dropped out. Got all that? Anyway, I can't help but wonder if the voters in the 23rd, were sending a message that they don't have a lot of time for and interest in the drama. I think the message for leaders generally might be to focus on the things that really matter to people. When all the drama is stripped away, you still have to have a good answer to "So what?"

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.