I can’t help but wonder in retrospect if Hillary Clinton was really too smart to lead given the state of the current U.S. political ecosystem. This concept might seem oxymoronic, but it seems that the phenomenon has reared its head again and again in recent political campaigns.
Many snickered as Trump invented and repeated words like “bigly” and declared “I love the uneducated”. Similarly George W. Bush boasted about his “C” student status, couldn’t seem to grasp the correct pronunciation of the word “nuclear”, and defined Condoleeza Rice’s role as an “unsticker” during a formal press conference.
Candidate Obama on the other hand was often labeled “too cerebral and aloof” while Hillary Clinton was characterized as too much of a “policy wonk” with her deep knowledge of the issues seeming to become a bit of an albatross creating a connection chasm between her and the average debate viewer.
Yes, admittedly Obama did ultimately prevail, but in many ways it seemed that his amazing intellect was a bit of a hindrance to be “overcome” or masked somewhat – almost like Quayle reportedly dying his edges grey to mask or downplay his youth. Arguably candidate Obama seemed to be able to connect with voters in spite of the intellectual superiority because he also possessed supernatural communication skills that provided the means for a more authentic and intimate personal connection.
Many would argue that Bill Clinton provided the best combination – superior intellect packaged in a deceptively accessible, folksy, guy next door demeanor. While Bill Clinton was likely the smartest person in the room virtually everywhere he went, it didn’t seem as “in your face” with that Arkansas accent and clearly flawed (if not checkered) personal history that made him not just human but relatable and endearingly vulnerable. His wife arguably possessed the same intellect but without the balancing effect of the high EQ, easy-going personality, phenomenal communication skills, and natural ability to authentically connect. She herself admitted that she would be much less effective running for the job than doing the job. Clearly, her strength would be having intense policy discussions in the oval office, not connecting to real voters in huge rallies.
One could certainly argue that a significant portion of the American electorate values relatability more than intellect when selecting its leaders. It seems that many voters want someone “just like me” more than someone “clearly smarter than me” and that may require a certain “dumbing down” for those intellectually superior candidates to win if we’re being completely honest. It seems that voters may prefer to vote for the person they’d enjoy having a beer with after work to the Ivy League professor who could teach them something new. If this is true, the next question then becomes “How do you make smarter people more relatable?” There’s likely no perfect formula, but it seems that a key ingredient is vulnerability.
As I watched Hillary Clinton’s speech to supporters the day following a crushing and shocking defeat, I couldn’t help but think it was the best speech I’d ever heard from her. It was poignant, gracious, and felt authentically connected to her supporters in part I’m sure because she was delivering it from a place of true vulnerability. I remember during preparation for a team retreat with a client leader asking him to plan to share some of his personal/professional “negatives” or missteps with his team to make himself seem more relatable. After all, do any of us get a warm fuzzy feeling when we meet someone new who seems like their life is perfect? No. We want to see flaws (probably to make us feel better about ourselves as well). Sharing vulnerabilities (not necessarily accomplishments) creates almost immediate connection. Think about it….How do you feel when someone you don’t know well shares a vulnerability, mistake, or problem they’re experiencing – do you feel closer to them or more distant? Compare that feeling to how you feel when someone shares a listing of their latest accomplishments. Quite a different effect typically – the open and honest problem sharing creates interest and connection while the listing of accomplishments (particularly from someone you don’t know well) often creates a sense of distance, envy or even disdain.
Many would argue that one element (among many I’m sure) in Oprah’s phenomenal success was her relatability – she didn’t pretend to be perfect, she put her flaws front and center and in the process not only created uncountable opportunities to authentically discuss taboo topics but also created a very intimate connection with millions of viewers along the way. I wonder if Martha Stewart’s likeability ratings have increased since her stint in prison? Even though we view her as perfection personified, isn’t she so much more likable with at least a few flaws?
Clearly, most would agree that strong intellect should be a prerequisite for most leadership roles, but it’s important to acknowledge that smarts often isn’t enough and without some of the other “balancing traits” like relatability, likability, sociability, and communication skills, the superior intellect can become a bit of a hindrance. Yes, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniac, and Steve Jobs are/were brilliant minds responsible for the development of products that have changed millions of lives around the world, but I wonder if they had to be democratically elected by the masses of their companies, would they have won? Maybe not.
Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connect with her on Linked In @ www.linkedin.com/in/danabrownlee and Twitter @DanaBrownlee.