Management Lessons Learned from the Campaign Trail

In less than a week the elections will be over. Hallelujah! Like millions of other people, I’ve grown extremely tired of all the political embellishment and tirades of contradictory and inflammatory rhetoric. Nevertheless I continue to listen and watch.  What keeps me tuned in and online?


The answer is really quite simple. Observing and assessing how people perform, especially when in the spotlight and under pressure, fascinates me.  And that’s a good thing because performance evaluation is also my business. I admire people who excel at the what they do whether it be leadership, athleticism, or singing and dancing.  I am equally intrigued how so many high potential careers are derailed and self-sabotaged by personal excesses and what I’ll call “inner demons.”


In that respect, the last few weeks have served me a feast of revelations, a virtual smorgasbord of human behavior – to which I sit back, watch, and smile. 


The sleaziness and negative nature of the politics disgusts me.  But I am entertained – somewhat perversely – by the dynamics and tribulations of individual behavior. Of particular interest is this theme of change exhorted by both the Democrats and Republicans candidates.  Against this backdrop, the campaign trail has exposed a multitude of lessons from which hiring managers can learn.  At the top of my lesson list is the tried-and-true premise that past behavior IS a good predictor of future performance.


It is no secret that both Obama and McCain have been attempting to distinguish and differentiate themselves as change agents.  Most of us would agree we need change – and a lot of it. My focus then as a hiring manager (or a voter) must be on what behaviors in the past would be good predictors of managing change in the future.


McCain proclaimed himself a “maverick.”  I’m intrigued by his choice of words. A maverick is defined as an individual “who thinks independently; a lone dissenter; a non-conformist or rebel.” To be an agent of change, you must sometimes be willing to stand up and be counted even when your opinion is unpopular. That’s good stuff.  McCain seems to fit the bill.


But thinking unconventionally and forging ahead against all odds doesn’t necessarily infer effectiveness at solving problems. Being a maverick merely describes how an individual will approach change, not how effective he or she will be.  Being a maverick isn’t a skill, it’s a tool.


McCain also gave us a hint how he brandishes this tool when he selected Sarah Palin for his running mate.  Why did this decision surprise us? By all accounts, he only confirmed his modus operandi  – he is a maverick and his unpredictability is predictable. To prove how much a maverick he is, he even picked a maverick to be his vice president. That by no means suggests that her selection was a good or bad decision or that being a maverick is the right or wrong behavior.  It merely suggests that McCain is not afraid to solve complex problems and make difficult decisions independent of what others think, based more on his “gut” than the analysis of others.  He is not afraid of “shooting from the hip” (as compared to Joe Biden who tends to “shoot from the lip.”)  Again, that’s not an approval or disapproval for being a maverick.  It’s an observation.


There’s more. With maverick behavior comes a feistiness that attracts as many followers as it creates opponents.  Madonna is both a talented entertainer and astute business person. She’s also feisty.  In fact, her record label is called Maverick.  Charles Barkley is feisty.  Bill O’Reilly is feisty.  James Carville is feisty.   They either or were all considered the best in their field.  But each of them seems to push the envelope to the extreme of making people uncomfortable.  Am I saying that’s a bad thing?  No, not at all. But sometimes you wonder if they are saying and doing things because they believe them or just to see what type of reaction he or she gets? That’s what you get with mavericks.  If you want a maverick, you better be willing to live with the maverick!


McCain is seen as an out-spoken, vigorous, and mature politician through one lens but a curmudgeonly old man through another.  I’m quite sure McCain’s intent was the former, not the latter.  But perception is reality.


McCain is now experiencing what it’s like to live with a maverick too.  Political experts at first applauded his choice of Sarah Palin as a brilliant strategic move that rejuvenated a fading campaign. But as of today, many consider it a big mistake, underestimating what it takes to manage a maverick.  Remember, a maverick is a non-conformist, an independent thinker. For weeks she was the darling of the Republican Party. She was the knight in shining armor. She was the future of the Republican Party. But as predictable as the sun rises each morning, stress and pressure has a funny way of exposing another side of our behavior.  You can’t box a maverick into a corner.  You can’t can the behavior and shelf it behind cabinet doors.  Palin the other maverick is now being described as Palin, the rogue and diva.  Is that fair?  No. He got what he wanted.


Has she changed?  No.  She is who she is. She’s the same person she was 3 months ago before most people ever heard of her. Her story is an old story. How often does a marriage fail because one spouse thought the other spouse would change after they got married?  How often is a manager surprised when the overly confident candidate becomes a prima donna or the exacting, detail-oriented candidate because a nit-picky, never-can-be-pleased manager? Whether it relates to personal or professional, past behavior is a good predictor of future performance. 


As I mentioned earlier, the campaign trail has been a feast of lessons learned about human behavior.  Regardless of who wins, every manager can be a winner if he or she learns from the lessons taught on this campaign trail.  It’s all about job fit, the alignment of an employee’s fit with the job, team and culture.


Can you hear me know? What are your observations?  What can hiring managers learn from the campaign trail?


And most importantly, don’t forget to vote.



Ira S Wolfe