What are the four things Barack Obama talks about all time? Whether or not you’ll vote for him, it’s likely that you could answer that question.*
Now, consider John McCain’s messaging — what are the four most important messages that he’s hammered home over the election? This one’s not as easy for most people.
And that’s a big reason for him losing the election.
Consider this: Many people regard John McCain positively. On some subjects — particularly defense and experience — he’s often rated more highly than his opponent. In polls, people often regard him more “open” and “less elitist” than Obama. Good characteristics that often create a real bond between a leader and his/her followers. It seems he’s “emotionally connected” with millions of individuals; another good thing.
But he’s not regarded as being particularly consistent. The messages he hits during debates or in interviews seemed to change from one week to another. I suspect he does this because he’s trying to react to the “hot button issues” being faced by the electorate. It’s probably intended to show that he can relate to those people in the real world by addressing what they are feeling at any given time. Organizational leaders make the same mistake, telling their teams about all the things that need to be done.
It’s a flawed strategy. As a leader, it is important that the “audience” — whether they are employees, shareholders, or voters — clearly knows what you stand for and what the priorities are. When they do, they’re more likely to support you when it comes down to the heavy lifting, and they’ll deliver what’s asked of them.
But, if they don’t know what you think is most important, they’ll fumble. Despite a possibly strong desire to help you succeed, they won’t know how to do what’s needed. And you’ll fail. Just like John McCain.
In many studies, including those 360 Degree Reviews used in many organizations, very effective managers are generally rated the highest on the issue of consistency. And, not co-incidentally, those who are most clear about what they think is important are most likely to get those things accomplished. Their teams know what to do and when to do it. Key goals are accomplished. While other leaders may be smarter or nicer, they don’t have the same power behind them.
The evidence on this is clear — when you make your priorities and vision abundantly clear you succeed.
In John McCain’s case, he was very clear on defense issues. He made that point effectively and, as a consequence, he’s rated as the best guy for Commander in Chief. But he didn’t make his case as clearly about the economy, health care, unemployment, or the environment. And each of those has shown strong levels of importance with the voters. Also, he seemed to change direction on few other key issues such as offshore drilling and tax programs, while, at the same time, providing evidence that he was prepared to move off one of his “core issues” surrounding negative campaigning. While perhaps appropriate tactically, those shifts in priorities and positions made it less clear what exactly he cared most deeply about. That lack of clarity lessens passion in one’s followers.
Obama sounded a bit like a broken record on the issues he wanted to focus on. Kind of boring and distant to some people. But, as a result, almost everyone — supporters or opponents — knew his stands on *health care, the economy, taxes, and even defense. His supporters were very motivated. They were prepared to move mountains to win.
Learn this lesson well. Consistency is a critical tool for any leader’s success. It pays better returns on your career momentum than being smart or plugged-in with the brass. Often, consistency is even better than having great results in your past. When your team can say clearly what you stand for, what the organization is focused on, and what goals are most critical, they will deliver the goods. You’ll have a better career as a result.