Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain participated in their first presidential debate on Friday, September 26, 2008. As I noted in my recently published book, Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - www.sayitlikeobama.com), it has been acknowledged from both sides of the political aisle that Barack Obama is a world-class orator. Some have questioned, however, if Obama’s skills in the specific area of debating are sufficiently strong. Obama’s September 26 debate performance should put to rest any concerns that his debate performances could not be strong enough to inspire confidence and sway listeners. He performed excellently.
Nevertheless, every leader can find room for improving their delivery. The most outstanding leaders constantly strive to identify their areas for improvement and to address them, continually becoming stronger in their capabilities. How could Barack Obama have strengthened his September 26 debate performance? It boils down to an issue of “maintaining authority and control.” As a general rule, an exceptionally strong performer refuses to allow another party to define them negatively or make remarks that diminish their authority without issuing a response.
My views on this topic are informed by the training I received while serving as a consultant with McKinsey & Company. As a female consultant who McKinsey sent in to work with CEOs and CFOs of multi-billion dollar companies, I was given outstanding training on how to hold my own in environments that were not used to working with young empowered businesswomen. One of the key lessons: always be aware of issues of power and control. Efforts to undercut one’s authority can be as slight as when your peer in rank, upon first meeting you, gives you an extra-firm handshake intended to enhance their authority and diminish yours. If it happens, you would do well to offer an extra firm handshake back. If someone in a meeting makes a quip about your youth, under appropriate circumstances you should explicitly draw direct attention to the comment—which makes them look poorly—and counter the comment, rather than taking the quip in silence, risking the impression that you were picked upon. Authority and control.
This is the lesson Obama could have employed more during the debate. For example, Senator McCain said many times, “Senator Obama doesn’t understand…” “Senator Obama doesn’t understand…” “Senator Obama doesn’t understand…” Some critics may not like Obama's views, but few would question the intellectual power Obama wields. The words “Senator Obama doesn’t understand” were condescending and intended to undercut both Obama’s authority and perceptions about his presidential readiness. While Obama pushed back here and there (and did so well), he could have addressed McCain’s choice of those words head-on. In doing so, he would likely have nipped the comments in the bud.
Similarly, when McCain asserted that Obama would not be strong enough in his efforts to protect Israel, Obama would have been best served by acknowledging the assertion head-on and countering it very forcefully. Obama certainly has the capacity to do this, as he has shown in prior debates—during his debate with Hillary Clinton on February 26, 2008, for instance.
Certain choices—when a rival questions your intellect or implies you would not support a key American ally—deserve direct, calibrated responses. It is always important to keep issues of authority and control in mind and, when you discern clear attempts to undermine your authority and control, to find appropriately measured ways to squelch those attempts.
Dr. Shel Leanne is author of Say It Like Obama: the Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision (McGraw Hill, 2008 - www.sayitlikeobama.com) and President of Regent Crest, a leadership development firm whose clients come from Fortune 500 companies. Dr. Leanne has experience as a McKinsey & Company consultant and served on the faculty at Harvard University from 1997-2001, where she taught courses on social entrepreneurship and organizational design.