February 14, 2008

An Authentic Leader in the White House?

The resounding victories of Barack Obama and John McCain in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. – Obama by an average of 34 percentage points and McCain by 28 – confirm a growing desire of the American public to elect an authentic leader as its next president.

At every talk I have given this past year on True North and authentic leadership, one of the first questions is, “Is it possible to have an authentic leader in the White House?” At first, I begged off these questions, saying my research on leaders was based entirely on business and non-profit leaders. Privately, I had my doubts that our political process, which has become so negative and vicious in recent years, would permit an authentic leader to prevail.

As this extended primary campaign moves on, it is becoming increasingly clear that the American public is not only open to an authentic leader as President, but demanding one. The two leading candidates at present, John McCain and Barack Obama, are on the rise precisely because they are authentic.

The media seems to think this election is about gender and race. I think it is about authenticity. Most people under-forty are so cynical about politicians who promise one thing and do another, or who are unwilling to admit their mistakes and shortcomings, that they will only get engaged for a leader that they are convinced is authentic. No wonder that both Obama and McCain have such a following among independents and the younger generations.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney may have been the best qualified candidate in either party, but he failed because he lacked authenticity and seemed to say whatever people wanted to hear. His positions on key issues changed so dramatically since his years as governor of Massachusetts that no one knew what he stood for. The same could be said for the precipitous fall of Rudy Giuliani, once the Republican front-runner.

McCain, on the other hand, who was left for dead last summer as his campaign was falling apart, came back on the strength of his authenticity. McCain, who experienced his crucible as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, tells it like it is. He is not afraid to go against popular positions or the Republican hierarchy, including the current president. As he has assumed front-runner status for the nomination, the hard-liners in the Republican Party have tried to bring him in line, but he has steadfastly refused.

On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton is fully qualified to be president, but people don´t seem to know who she really is. She is extremely skilled at playing the polls and figuring out the right appeals to voter subgroups, but this has only led to unusually high negatives in the eyes of many people who are politically aligned with her positions. The one time she showed a little emotion in New Hampshire voters responded by giving her a surprise victory over Obama. Then she returned to the negative side in South Carolina, and her support has been slipping ever since.

Obama´s authenticity is precisely what makes him so appealing to such a wide range of voters. He seems “good in his skin,” and is able to rise above the negative attacks. His message of hope and change, backed up by specific programs that seem logical to most people, is inspiring a lot of Americans to get engaged in the political process. For all the talk that he would wither under the pressure, he seems to get stronger and more confident as he goes.

Obama talks openly about his crucible – coming from a mixed race family, watching his parents divorce while he was very young, moving to Hawaii, and being confused in high school about which direction to go – until he found himself in his early twenties. His opponents say that he lacks experience, which is not really true. At 46 years of age, Obama has had an abundance of life´s experiences, which enable him to understand the lives of ordinary Americans and to empathize with their challenges.

He is confident enough to sit down with a wide variety of world leaders, even those with whom the United States currently has hostile relationships, and try to work out solutions. He uses the same approach to health care, offering to bring all the interested parties around a big table and seek solutions, something his opponent steadfastly refused to do in the early-1990s and is currently belittling him for today.

In a topsy-turvy election year, there´s no assurance that either McCain or Obama will be elected President, but that doesn´t take away from voters´ desires for an authentic leader in the White House.

This just might be the year. Wouldn´t that be a change?