Five Things Any Leader Can Learn from the First Presidential Debate

In the first head-to-head matchup of the 2016 election cycle, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton showed a few skills that could be useful for any leader.

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For leaders of all stripes these days performing is part of the job. Here are a few lessons you can pick up from the first presidential debate — even if you’re not in politics.

Keep the Focus on Your Story

When facing a competing vision or a dogged detractor, the urge to focus on countering their claims can be overwhelming, but it’s rarely a good idea.

The New York Times criticized Hillary Clinton for largely bowing out of fact-checking Donald Trump after, early in the debate, directing viewers to her website where a live fact-checking stream had taken over her home page. According to Adam Galinsky, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, however, that may not have been such a bad idea. “Fact checking during an event like this runs the risk of making the conversation primarily about your opponent instead of what you’re going to do.”

By side-stepping Trump’s free-wheeling approach to hard facts, Clinton freed up her time to focus on the key points she wanted voters to walk away with.

What You Say Isn’t Nearly as Important as How You Say It

Donald Trump’s success in the 2016 election cycle, of course, doesn’t hinge on his rock-solid recall or his ability to marshal facts and figures — it comes from his ability to paint a vivid, gripping picture and tap into his audience’s world view. That’s another solid reason for Clinton to side-step the fact checking.

“The language he uses: ‘Jobs are fleeing the country;’ ‘African Americans are living in hell’: it’s stirring stuff,” says Katherine Phillips, who researches diversity and its effects on social judgment and group dynamics. It’s also an effective strategy to make people feel like they need a change at a time when things in the country are going well, she points out.

Trump’s expressiveness, and his ability to distill complex phenomena down to short, memorable — and often fiery — parables makes him a singularly compelling public speaker. Sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild refers to this as Trump’s ability to connect with the “deep story” — “an account of life as it feels” to his supporters.

The critical aspect of this performance has presented a challenge for Clinton, who has been dogged by claims that she’s “shrill,” throughout the campaign. Phillips points to pundits who claimed in the 2008 election cycle that Obama needed to show more emotion and get angrier, noting that they failed to realize just how accessible — and potentially damaging to his campaign — the stereotype of the “angry black man” is. “For women and minorities in leadership positions, there’s only a very narrow range in which behavior can acceptably fall.”

A Hostile Opponent Can Be Turned to Your Advantage

The double-standard affecting women doesn’t just come down to the emotions they can display — but rather to whether they can say anything at all.

Journalists at Vox kept track of the number of times each of the candidates was interrupted. For Trump, that number was 47 times, and two-thirds of those times the interruption came from moderator Lester Holt, often seeking to get a more direct answer to the question from Trump. Clinton, on the other-hand, was interrupted a total of 70 times, with the overwhelming majority of those interruptions coming from Trump. That’s an unfortunate fact of professional life for many women, Phillips points out. “Men interrupt women all the time, to the point that some companies have had to introduce ‘no interruption’ rules to curb the practice,” she explains.

Clinton seemed unflustered by the interruptions, however, continuing to talk as others attempted to speak over her. According to Galinsky, that was the right approach. “With Trump in particular, for whom almost everything is a dominance display, it was critical that she not back down or let him invade her space.” As the debate wore on, Galinsky continues, she was increasingly able to turn those interruptions to her advantage, reacting only with a cocked eyebrow or a bemused smile, undermining the effectiveness of his strong-man tactics.

Concentrate on the Converts You Can Win

The 2016 election cycle is unique for the sheer number of voters still undecided this close to Election Day. For both candidates, victory will depend on pulling voters out of the undecided column and into their respective camps.

There are two theories when it comes to coalition building, Phillips explains. Either you focus on the individuals closest to agreeing with you, or you focus on those furthest away — the theory being that if you can get them on your side, others will come along too. “It’s not yet fully established in the research,” Phillips says, “but anecdotally we never see that latter strategy work. It’s always best to focus on those who have the least distance to travel.”

That’s where the dynamics became particularly interesting on Monday night. Trump focused much of his energy on criticizing free trade deals, calling NAFTA “the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.” Criticism of free trade has long been a staple of Trump’s campaign, but it was also a cornerstone of Bernie Sanders primary campaign. By focusing on trade instead of other, core Republican policy issues, including social issues like abortion or gay marriage and entitlement reform — all of which received nary a mention — Trump left himself well positioned to potentially pull in former Sanders supports who share his trade-skepticism.

For both the candidates, the primary challenge this election cycle, when some formerly core constituencies — namely educated white republicans and working-class white democrats — seem to be up for grabs, will be determining exactly who those closest to joining their side might be.

Preparing for the Questions Is Only Half the Job

Trump seemed to be at his most effective at the beginning of the debate, producing concise, clear answers. But a solid hour and a half facing questions, under bright lights, in front of an audience and an aggressive opponent is an endurance test. “When it comes to high-profile events like this,” Galinsky explains, “part of the preparation is getting your answers down, but the other part of it is knowing what it means to stand there for 90 minutes. When we’re fatigued and under stress our impression management and self-regulatory abilities go down.”

That may explain one of Trump’s slips during the performance. At the outset of the debate he made a show of naming Clinton, “Secretary Clinton,” in a move seemingly calculated to dodge criticisms of sexism while also making Clinton seem fragile by pointedly clearing the title with her first.But as the debate wore on, his discipline flagged, his answers became more rambling, and he ultimately reverted to calling Clinton “Hillary.” Clinton, for her part, referred to Trump as Donald all night denying him both the honorific “mister” and the brand name synonymous with his success.

It was in this sense that Trump landed perhaps the weakest blow of the evening — charging that Clinton lacked the stamina to be president as he himself seemed to fade. In the aftermath of the debate, journalists including CNN’s Anderson Cooper breathlessly claimed that Clinton didn’t take a single sip of water all night — perhaps a savvy move given the recent media attention on her health — while Trump returned to his glass repeatedly.

For leaders of all stripes, endurance and the ability to maintain the script is essential to winning supporters.

About the researcher

Adam Galinsky

Adam Galinsky is the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business at the Columbia Business School.

Professor Galinsky has published more than 200 scientific...

Read more.

About the researcher

Katherine Phillips

Katherine Phillips was a Columbia Business School faculty member from 2011 to 2020.
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