If You’ve Never Been Embarrassed Publicly Don’t Bother Reading This


If nobody’s ever embarrassed you in public – even before a public of one — skip this column.  But if not, I offer some serious counsel on power and authority (related to but not the same thing as leadership; see footnotes)*.

I debated in high school and college, and I will never forget one time when I was thoroughly put on my heels and pushed around the room.  That unforgettable Friday night at the University of Pittsburgh I felt like a pile of hair and dust at the end of a thick and wide industrial push-broom.  It didn’t matter that three times before we had soundly defeated that evil team from Catholic Central.  This time they ate us for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

I was reminded of that tale-whipping while watching the first presidential debate last week.  Gosh, my partisan self hates to write this. But there it was. Mitt Romney was authoritative.  He was as my friend and leadership mentor Ronnie Heifetz observes in his outstanding book Leadership Without Easy Answers, like the silverback gorilla. He thumped his chest. He said he would do what authority figures do — and are expected to do in crisis — he would offer protection, direction, and order.  He was the medium for that message — sure, advancing, pointing, pushing.  He told us we were hurting, and he said he would remove the pain. And for the vast majority of that 90 minutes, he knocked our reigning gorilla from the high point he has occupied for four years, and he would not let him back up.*  I suspect the President walked out of that room, got in the car with the First Lady and said, surely not in these crass:  “I just got my ass kicked.”  I suspect he also added, “But it won’t happen again.”  On the 16th we may see the Thrilla in Manilla.

Can you even imagine battling your nemesis in front of 60 million people for 90 minutes?  So, what relevance, you ask, can it possibly have for us mere mortals?  Well, if you haven’t explicitly done so, I invite you to bring to mind your own nemesis  – someone whose values perhaps are quite different than yours, someone who perhaps wants to have the kind of influence that you also want to have. Maybe it’s in business.  Maybe it’s your ex!  Maybe it’s a bully. Maybe you’ve already had round one…

Three lessons stand out:  Before.  During.  After.

1. Before:  From Governor Romney.  Before a possible square-off: prepare like crazy.  Romney had so clearly schooled himself deeply.  He did not bring a knife to a gun fight.   He was prepared for battle. If you’re going to court, the board meeting, a sales proposal, a mediation…Man, you’ve got to know your stuff, and well enough to know you know your stuff.

Who’s in charge? Who’s the silverback?

2. During:  From the President(‘s unfortunate performance) and with credit to my friend Heifetz again, “you don’t answer a tuba with a piccolo.” When somebody is whupping up on you, that is not a time to go inside and get quiet, not a time to be fair or self critical, and not a time to concede points to your challenger.**  There will be a time for all of that.  But not in the heat of the battle. You’ve gotta stand up. If for instance you’re being bullied  say clearly, “I will not speak to you like that and I do not accept your speaking to me like that.”  Put the piccolo away.

3. After:  If you lose, rebound, and do it fast.  Obama was pretty crisp and quick the next day.  (He also did not admit in any way that he lost.  If you want to be the silverback, you don’t have to be the one saying you lost.)  Next time, Romney will start at the top of the hill with Obama.  I imagine this time both will have their footing.  I am sure Candy Crowley is going to have both hands full refereeing at Hofstra on the 16th.

Power and authority don’t always matter.  But when people are looking for “who is in charge,” you have to be ready to play the gorilla game to

Lead with your best self!

* As Heifetz would hasten to add, we may be looking for a gorilla, but we need a leader.  Indeed, Heifetz offers great counsel against our desire to be led by someone who claims the ability to “solve” all our problems.  Instead he argues that often leaders actually need to stress their people to face the tough challenges rather than tell them “I will take care of everything” (something of course we continually seem to demand from both candidates).

** In my younger days I would have argued for a more conciliatory approach, but I now think this is naive.  There is a time for that, but this was not it!  If one is extraordinarily adept perhaps they can in some martial arts way use the other’s over-aggressiveness to expose them. Many arm-chair quarterbacks have had all kinds of clever ideas of how Obama could have done this.  Good for them.  But (a) incredibly hard to do, and (b) of dubious value when there is a level of head-to-head battle.  The biggest thing the President could have done would have been mostly non-verbal:  to physically face Romney head on, to not allow interruptions from him, to insist that Jim Lehrer be fair (some may have seen Romney as a bully but he sent the message, “I am in control” and balanced it with some deference at other points).  The symbolism matters. Strength matters.  There’s time to be subtle later.

  • Actually I guess I am surprised at all the noise this debate has generated and that there is a judgement of “winning” vs “loosing” it. The more we speak about Obama loosing and Romney winning we help drive the direction of what people latch onto and whom they might vote for. Did Obama really loose? or perhaps he played a strategic move and allowed this first debate to swing one way to get a feel for Romney and also come back from an underdog position later (since there are more to come), maybe Obama just wanted to lay a bit low and allow Romney to seem strong only to comeback later and closer to election and show his strengths and substantial ideas. I think the media and their black and white views are influencing America beyond imagination, let’s not do the same. Did he really loose?

    • who puts the little face on the comments ? I did not mean it in any angry fashion – I am a scientist and only question our assumptions on many of our stands on things. N.

      • Nancy,
        ((I think somehow you generated that crazy little (avatar?) face. WordPress and I don’t.))
        As for the substance, yes he “lost” a battle of authority in my view.
        That is different than leadership. Leaders are concerned with much more than making people feel like they are safe (which may be a big illusion).
        Yet Obama seeks to HAVE authority in order to LEAD.
        So, we can try to change OUR views of what authorities and leaders look like, but in the meantime, I suspect the President will have to change HIS approach to meeting these existing, deep hidden needs for strong authority figures (and thus “win” next time).

  • Good advice for the president and those of we voters, Dan.

    Of these two introverts practicing to be extravert leaders in the debates, Romney was much better prepared in Debate #1. Hopefully, the president’s wife will once again remind him that his responses in the next debate need to be all about emotion not about analytical facts.

    Talking about saving The American Dream for the next generation is what the public wants to hear not about the amount of government spending/saving in future years. More about the 2012 Election Agenda here: http://www.coachingtip.com/2012/09/the-2012-election-agenda.html

  • Dan,

    I agree. Prepare, Prepare, and Prepare. I am still trying to figure out why the President was so laid back. Could we be witnessing a unique strategy of a confident leader?

  • Great points, Dan. Most of us could “feel” Romney’s presence during that debate. He certainly offered the presence of leadership, and he obviously relished the competition. As you state, his assertion that he will take care of everything is false. A real leader would be saying “Ask not what your country can do for you . . . ” Unfortunately, many of us vote on feeling rather than facts and realities. Strength does matter. I would love to see a “Thrilla in Manilla” on the 16th, too. Thanks for your insightful article.

  • Hello, Mr. Mulhern:

    I have subscribed to your leadership column for a few years now, but I hadn’t found inspiration to post a response. Today I found that inspiration.

    In this article, you likened President Obama’s actions in the recently televised debates to a personal tail whipping and expressed some sympathy toward him for what sounded like a great perceived loss. I have seen many other people who viewed the debate as such, as well, and have actually been surprised and admittedly disappointed. To me, this has been a great lesson on the makeup of today’s apparent expectation of what our nation views as a “leader” and this has been the greatest disappointment of all.

    I have seen from years of reading your articles that you do not typically take the stance of the chest-thumping gorilla, although you have written about struggling with your instincts when confronted to do just that. You have proven in your writings that “strong” doesn’t have to mean “loud” or, as you defined Mr. Romney in his actions, “authoritative.” I originally subscribed to your leadership article because, when Jennifer was governor of my home state of Michigan, I was wholly impressed with the example you set of First Gentleman. Like so many First Ladies of the past, you supported our governor in her work and never made excuses for her. Yes, she was our first lady governor and yes, she was a female politician and a strong one, but you weren’t intimidated by that and didn’t seem to feel the need to prove your manhood just because you were married to a strong, intelligent, and capable woman and leader. You didn’t have to face off against other men, who may have indeed snickered at first as you set the pace for a new way to look at the supporting role. You simply showed that you were also very strong, intelligent, and capable yourself, as a leader and a true gentleman. You let the facts speak for themselves.

    I saw President Obama do the same in the debate, but indeed this was in a way for which it seems America was not fully prepared. He did not thump his chest, even when Mr. Romney did and even as Mr. Romney thumped it more and more loudly and spoke more and more half truths and outright false statements. Instead of loudly thumping back and easily embarrassing Mr. Romney in his many erroneous and misleading statements, President Obama simply responded back with facts in a calm and elegant manner.

    I must admit that I do think President Obama seemed embarrassed at times in the debate. To be frank, I felt embarrassed at times, but this was probably for a different reason than one might think. My embarrassment for President Obama, but instead for our country. As I watched the debate, it became clear to me that Mr. Romney had indeed practiced more and carefully gauged his responses, calculating and deliberately confronting President Obama. You’d think this one was something important to him. Mr. Romney had previously struck me as calculating, but he hadn’t struck me in the past as someone who was so careful in his speech in previous televised appearances I have seen. What I saw in the debate, however, was that Mr. Romney had done some homework. He wanted to…. *needed to*… “win” this debate soundly in the eyes of undecideds and he suceeded in putting on a real show. Still, behind the chest-thumping gorilla, I saw something new. I had wondered how a man who, well, didn’t seem terribly bright in his public appearances, could have ended up so successful and I got an answer I didn’t like at all. I finally saw how truly deceptive he could be.

    I was so disappointed to see, too, however, that the loud bravado and the showmanship seemed to be working as expected by Mr. Romney. Few commentators who have spoken on their views of the debate spoke of anything else.

    The fact is, we saw two people showing what sort of person they are, expressing how they get things done, and the job they could do as our president over the next four years in two very different ways. One showed us he can be very good with wording things to make them sound like what they aren’t. We saw a loud, boisterous, confrontational style and a real showman. Mr. Romney’s speech was filled with charisma and stereotypical strength, but was also filled with some very questionable statements and a lack of facts. The other was quieter, more reserved, at peace, almost sorrowful at times. President Obama’s tone expressed, to me, the serious understanding that our country has been in great struggle for a long time, but he didn’t make up excuses or argue when a mistatement was made. Perhaps, if he wanted to “win” he would have, but he stayed true to who he is and each statement was made to the country, to the viewers, or to the moderator instead of as an angry retort to Mr. Romney’s rhetoric. I saw in this debate that President Obama wasn’t there to waste time arguing obvious mistatements, but instead to answer questions and take the opportunity to give factual statements, frankly and honestly, and to show that he wasn’t easily ruffled or riled, in spite of a chest thumping gorilla putting on a show. The true facts did speak for themselves, but who was listening?

    What embarrasses me is that our country mostly saw the gorilla as impressive. They saw the age-old standard of “strength,” exhibited in age-old stereotypical style, and collectively said, “ooooo!” like children in a classroom when a bully shot a practiced zinger to get attention. A bigger person was making more noise, irregardless of what they were saying, and wow. That seemed to impress a lot of people to think, “That’s the leader for me!”

    For too long, our country has followed the “leadership” of this kind of style. It’s why, even in today’s modern society, women still struggle to compete for top positions through the proverbial glass ceilings that remain in so many workplaces and organizations. It’s why, even after our country has fought through women’s suffrage, civil rights, the “space race”, and so many proud accomplishments, we still tout our leaders as capable only if they are the loudest and most confrontational and not if they have the most important thing to say and the willingness and capability to do what’s best, overall, for all those they lead.

    If we continue to see this as our example of a strong capable leader, how can we expect real change for the better to happen? All my life, I have seen males who show this kind of loud, arrogant behavor described as “authoritative” and strong leaders, while males who have a quieter and more elegant style of leadership (even when stronger and far more capable, in truth) seen as weak. Meanwhile, females who exhibit the sort of loud, arrogant, and erroneous behavor Mr. Romney showed in the debate are called to the mat on it every time with a far less flattering descriptive label than “authoritative” often applied and women who lead with strength and intelligence, but combine a quiet air of elegance and work to avoid confrontations through strong leadership and the building of teamwork seem accepted, but not highly respected as candidates for top leadership positions.

    What do you think this says about leadership or of our perceptions of leadership. More importantly, what do you think it says all of us and about why we follow the leaders we do?

    You said you suspect the President walked out of that room, got in the car with the First Lady, and expressed to her that he felt he’d been beaten. Perhaps he did feel that way, but ultimately it’s unimportant. So many people noted that President Obama “didn’t seem to want to be there,” but so few asked or endeavored to learn why. Why should we do homework? We could see who “won,” couldn’t we? That must be why he didn’t want to be there… right? But there is a fact that seemed to slip by many. This is a man who was getting into a car with his wife, after an admittedly confrontational and mandatory work meeting… on their wedding anniversary. Kudos to President Obama for “not wanting to be there” at that debate that night.

    You said you expect that President Obama will vow to make sure he is seen as a winner next time. I hope President Obama doesn’t change who he is — a strong, intelligent, capable leader who gives facts to the public and solves problems in admittedly a sometimes quieter, more elegant style than we are often used to seeing in our leaders — only to put on another “thrilla in Manilla” style show with the gorilla. I’d rather have as much honesty as a world leader can muster in these tough times, innovative ideas for solving problems, the gutts to break some old molds to see those ideas through, and a continued net growth of jobs. I really don’t have much interest in a gorilla for President.

    Thank you for your columns and regular wisdom sharing, Dan. I hope you continue to lead with your best self.

    –Bobbi Gorden

    • Bobbi,

      This is perhaps the best response I have ever read to an RFL post.

      I wrote about the gorilla, about power, about authority and protection. In short, a kind of coding the male in the species seems to have carried forward from ancient forebears, and what the TRIBE seems to continue to seek at times — especially in “scary” times.

      You have written about something altogether different. What a rallying cry for a different kind of FOLLOWER, demanding a different kind of leader.

      Thank you for all the time you must have spent on a gorgeous, well-crafted piece, thought-provoking and inspiring piece.


  • Bobbi, your post is a work of art.

    I hope Obama’s next step doesn’t regress to Romney’s level but advances to one where his kind of strength is apparent to the mainstream. We need to see that.

    • Hello, Meryl,

      It is an artistic balance, to be sure. If President Obama can find that perfect center point and, perhaps, find something new within himself, to grow into a place where his own true self could be more appreciated by the people he leads without compromising his goals, honesty, and integrity, then yes, I agree, that would be wonderful to see. Even a great person can continue to grow and learn.

      That is probably the most difficult struggle leaders in the public eye deal with every day. To be skilled and fortunate enough to be true to self, have the strength to stand by that which you believe is right, and still be appreciated by those you lead is truly the greatest success a good leader can find.

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