6 Leadership Lessons From The Presidential Primaries

This primary season has been full of surprises–but it also holds some important lessons for leaders.

6 Leadership Lessons From The Presidential Primaries
[Source photos: Leonard Zhukovsky, Action Sports Photography, Juli Hansen for Cruz and Kasich Joseph Sohm; Flickr user Ian Buck]

As one of the most unconventional U.S. presidential primary seasons in recent memory, the candidates on the stage couldn’t be more different. However, the race to secure their respective parties’ nominations holds some important lessons for business leaders. Here are the key takeaways.


1. You Must Know Your Audience

When you understand the messaging that works with the audience you’re targeting, you can create a strong, loyal bond, says David Cadden, professor emeritus at Quinnipiac University. Republican hopefuls Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and Democrat Bernie Sanders have been able to do this by tailoring their messages to reach their strongest supporters.

“[T]hey’re able to tap into one emotion in particular, and as such, they really don’t have to spell things out in any great detail. All they have to do is be able to keep that excitation of the emotional level primed and they will get a coterie of people who will be absolutely dedicated to them,” Cadden says.

2. Perception Is Powerful

A March 2016 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 59% of respondents did not consider Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ front-runner, honest and trustworthy. However, when PolitiFact, analyzed the “final five” primary candidates’ statements, they found her in a three-way tie (51%) for “most honest” in her statements along with Sanders and Republican John Kasich. There were 27% of her statements that were deemed “false” or “mostly false,” while totals for statements rated “false,” “mostly false,” and “pants on fire” ratings came in at 77% for Trump and 66% for Cruz.

3. Differentiation Matters

Each party started out with a collection of qualified candidates for the highest office in the land, but each had various levels of staying power. Part of that was an inability to create a level of differentiation that mattered to people, says Andy Traba, vice president of behavioral and data science with Mattersight, a behavioral analytics software company. Without such differentiation, it’s tough to rally a base of supporters to carry them to the nomination, he says.

4. Beware Being Cast As A Technician

Another factor in some races has been the perception of the individual as a “leader” versus a “technician,” Cadden says. Technicians are people who are adept at operating in the same old political environment and not able to create change. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, and many voters are gravitating to people who appear to empathize with their pain. When change is necessary, people look for a leadership vision that reflects their idea of what needs to change, he says.

5. People Are Watching Your Response Under Pressure

When you’re under fire, people are going to watch how you respond, says John Holcomb, business ethics and legal studies professor at the University of Denver in Colorado. When GOP candidates like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush were criticized by Trump, they tended to make light of it and ridicule him instead of responding with substantive arguments about why he was wrong, Holcomb says. When someone is critical of your ideas and positions, it’s more effective to respond with reasoned arguments rather than trade insults or ignore the attack, he adds.


6. There Is Power In Persistence

While Kasich and Sanders haven’t been widely considered as shoo-ins to win their nominations, each has kept going. Sanders racked up eight straight primary victories, if you include the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth. PolitiFact rated Kasich’s assertion that he has the best chance among Republican hopefuls of beating Clinton in the general election as “mostly true.”


About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.