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Leadership Don’ts from Presidential Debates

Credit: National Park Service

There’s a lot a leader can learn from the presidential debates--and it's mostly what not to do. Debates are a game of "not losing" and, as history shows, there are a lot of examples where men vying to lead the free world have "lost it." Relive the classic debate moments that best exemplify what not to do as a leader and heed the lessons they taught us:   

Everybody is deserving of your time.

Three seconds into this clip from the 1992 debate, George H.W. Bush famously appeared uncaring when he checked his watch before hearing from a women at a town hall event. Clinton drew a sharp contrast when he connected with the women by demonstrating that he did indeed feel her pain. 

Takeaway: No matter who it is, everybody you lead is deserving of your time and undivided attention. Don't make people who come to you with a question feel like they're bothering you. 

Never let them see you sweat.

In 1960, during the first ever televised debate, Richard Nixon famously looked tired and nervous next to John Kennedy. Under the heat of the studio lights, Nixon got sweaty and continually had to dab at his upper lip. 

Takeaway: Being sweaty is associated with nervousness or being unprepared. It distracts from your message. If you have to give a big presentation, wear clothes that breathe and make sure to drink lots of water to keep your core temperature down. If you're worried that people are noticing you sweat, they probably are. Invest in that clinical strength deodorant next time.  

Respect personal space. 

Al Gore had enough problems with people thinking he was stiff and a bit awkward during the 2000 presidential race. This odd moment at a town hall with George W. Bush didn't help. Gore infamously approached Bush while he was talking, perhaps in an attempt to intimidate the Texas Governor. With a nod of his head and a bemused "hello," Bush made Gore look foolish.

Takeaway: Invading a person's personal space is pretty much guaranteed to make anyone uncomfortable. Beyond that, acting overly aggressive never serves to advance your point--it'll make you look like a hot head...or a fool. 

Know what you're talking about.

If his troubles walking down stairs weren't bad enough, Gerald Ford made the electorate wonder if he had a command of the facts in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter when he asserted,  "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe." Turns out the Soviets were pretty dominant in Eastern Europe and would be for quite some time. 

Takeaway: A leader doesn't need to know everything, but they need to have their fundamental facts straight. Nothing undercuts the legitimacy of a leader more than appearing to not know what's going on. 

Honor your commitments--and don't make excuses. 

John McCain made what many considered to be a gaffe before the debate even began. In 2008, when the fundamentals of the economy proved not all that strong, McCain tried to cancel a debate with Barack Obama, saying he needed to return to Washington to deal with the financial crisis. The result: his campaign appeared to be backing away from the debate and prompted questions about how McCain would handle multiple problems at once as president. 

Takeaway: Honor your commitments--even if other circumstances make it difficult. If you need to back away from a goal or commitment, don't make a lot of excuses.  

Be human. 

In his 1988 debate with George H.W. Bush, Michael Dukakis was notoriously asked how he would feel "If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" He responded that he would not, citing his long-standing opposition to the death penalty. The next day the press painted Dukakis as uncaring and robotic, saying he should have been enraged by the idea--if not the very question itself.  

Takeaway: Leaders are human and they should have human responses to situations. Having a level head is important, but don't take stoicism and the burdens of leadership to the point where you're not relatable anymore.

What other lessons have you learned from watching the debates over the years? 

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Mark Micheli is Special Projects Editor for Government Executive Media Group. He's the editor of Excellence in Government Online and contributes to GovExec, NextGov and Defense One. Previously, he worked on national security and emergency management issues with the US Treasury Department and the Department of Homeland Security. He's a graduate of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs and studied at Drake University.

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