A Leadership Lesson from Our Former First Lady

Jan 24, 2019

It was the night before the New Hampshire democratic presidential primary. The icy control-queen Hillary Clinton faced a stern test. She had lost the Iowa caucuses just the week before to the smooth-talking upstart Barack Obama. Senator Clinton needed to win big in New Hampshire. The polls showed she had a slight lead, but fueled by his victory in Iowa, Obama was surging.

On primary election eve, at a campaign event in Portsmouth, something important happened:  Senator Clinton showed her humanity. Tears welled up in her eyes and her voice broke as she said, “I just don’t want to see us fall backwards. This is very personal for me. It’s not just political. It’s not just public. I see what’s happening, and we have to reverse it.”

The next day, she won the New Hampshire primary handily. The voters had seen her humanity and it resonated with them.

The Problem
Many leaders—whether presidents of nations or CEOs of major corporations—rarely show their humanity. They hide their true feelings. They put on a positive and upbeat facade, even when they have doubts. They speak in generalities and platitudes, quoting statistics rather than expressing their emotions. Their words don’t seem genuine. Indeed, many don’t even use their own words, preferring instead to use the carefully crafted sentences created by their speechwriters.

No wonder 44% of employees say they do not trust the information they receive from senior management.

Trust is very important in business. When leaders do not seem authentic, employees question their honesty and integrity. More importantly, when trust in management deteriorates, employee commitment and motivation wane.

What to Do

  1. Be Honest. Above all else, employees want honesty from their leaders. They want to know that their leaders will not intentionally or unintentionally deceive them.
  2. Communicate the "Don't Knows" as well as the "Do Knows." Here is a typical scenario of a quarterly CEO meeting with employees. The CEO uses a fancy PowerPoint presentation to report on the company financials for the quarter. The numbers are watered down so that they disguise what is really happening. More important, the questions employees really want to ask go unanswered such as:   “Are we in danger of becoming a takeover target?” “Are our jobs secure?”  “How will our bonuses be affected?”
    The CEO needs to acknowledge these "elephants in the middle of the room" and address them as accurately as possible. Even if the answers to these questions are not known, they need to be addressed.
  3. Use Self-Disclosure.  Self-disclosure is the act of revealing thoughts, feelings, aspirations, goals, successes, fears, dreams, likes and dislikes. It is a powerful communication technique that should be in the repertoire of all leaders and managers.

    Using self-disclosure helps build stronger relationships. For example, if a manager self-discloses with an employee, it helps build a stronger, more real, relationship with the employee. It also typically leads to the employee feeling more open to disclosing his or her own thoughts, feelings, and creative ideas.
  4. Share Feelings.  When is the last time you heard a president of a company say something like this to employees?   "We are planning to merge with XYZ Company. I am optimistic. I believe this will work out well and is the best move for all of us. I do have some concerns, however. I am worried that the price we are going to pay is steep, our different cultures need to mesh, and it is important that the product line we will gain fares well in the long run."

    You have probably never heard anything like this from a president. Doubts are honest emotions. Employees know that each business decision involves some risk. Why can't our leaders share their feelings? If they did, no doubt their people would trust them and respect them more.

Take a lesson from Hillary. Be real. Communicate your feelings. Let your emotions show sometimes. Your reward will be trusting, motivated, and loyal employees.