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Presidential leadership brand

By Norm Smallwood
web posted February 4, 2008

We are in the midst of selecting a candidate for president. Each candidate has articulated positions on important issues … economy, terrorism, war, immigration, healthcare, and so forth. While these specific issues matter, we know that we don't know all the demands our next President will face. Eight years ago, who could have predicted the Iraqi war and occupation, Katrina, global economic conditions, and other national and international crises? In the absence of knowing the future, we pick our leaders based on their brand, or identity, which gives us confidence for how they might respond to an unknown future.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, and GE have brands that distinguish them in the marketplace. Leaders also have brands which differentiate one leader from another. In determining a leader's brand, we have found a couple of issues that help us to choose among them.

First, does the brand deliver value? A leader's strengths are not valuable until someone uses them. So, we look at leaders and determine what strengths they have demonstrated in the past. Are the skills of the leader the skills required in the future? Anticipating what the future holds gives clarity about the leadership brand required to that future state.

If we look at each parties' top two candidates we see some brand distinctions playing out:

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton's brand identity is "I can govern the first day". She appeals to those who value experience in Washington and existing relationships that she can leverage around the world. Barack Obama stands for "hope and change". As a relative newcomer to the national stage, Obama appeals to those who want a young candidate not trapped in the past- not unlike JFK's brand in the 60's.

John McCainFor the Republicans, McCain's brand is "straight talk." He appeals to those looking for a president who represents strength to our allies and enemies. Mitt Romney's brand is "The CEO President." He promises to use his business expertise to turnaround Washington and the political process.

Second, brand is not only about what is done but also how things are done. The value of the iPod is not just the design, but how well it works. A leader's brand is not just about what they did, but how they did it. To what extent does the leader include others in decision-making, looking at alternative points of view, and so on?

Much of the negative ads that candidates run against their opponents are based on the logic that they try to usurp the brand identity of the other by claiming it as a future weakness. So, Hillary claims Obama is an inexperienced newcomer; Obama retorts that Hillary's relationships will result in an extension of the past. McCain criticizes Romney for not really being a leader and Romney claims McCain is a war hero who does not really understand economics.

We look at these leading political candidates. While they debate positions about important issues, we also need to look at their leadership brands. We cannot fully anticipate unknown realities, but we can predict what personal brand each candidate brings to the Presidency.

Abraham Lincoln was gifted at coalescing people with different points of view (a team of rivals), admitting errors, and moving forward.

Teddy Roosevelt was known for his entrepreneurial zeal and zest for discovery.

Harry Truman could be branded as a leader who accepted responsibility for challenging decisions.

John Kennedy's identity was one of inspiration and service.

Ronald Reagan combined a personal touch through stories he told with a vision of a different role of government.

Each president comes to the position with a brand. As citizens observing the election process, we hope we can be thoughtful observers of the person behind the politics and make a choice not just on today's issue, but how our leader will respond to tomorrow's challenges. ESR

Norm Smallwood is co-founder of The RBL Group and co-author of four books. He is also on the faculty of the Executive Education Center at the University of Michigan Business School. With Dave Ulrich he is co-author of Leadership Brand, Results-Based Leadership and How Leaders Build Value.


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