Just Plain Stupid (aka Leadership and Media Coverage of the American Political Process)

Special note to our international readers: I estimate that media coverage of politics in democratic countries is similar to what we experience in America. That said, I’m keeping my assessment focused on the United States as I get to watch its craziness firsthand.

It has begun and is in full force. By “it” I mean the insanity and stupidity of the American media’s coverage of its political process. It happens every time there’s an election and every four years, when we elect our President, the levels of insanity and stupidity soar exponentially.

You’d think that with commentary that regularly refers to the President of the United States as “the leader of the free world” at least a smattering of the media’s coverage would be analyzing the candidates’ leadership capabilities. Nothing could be further from the truth and there’s a warning in that for all of us to heed.

A Sadly Familiar Reality

Every four years the American media outlets go gaga over the political process. What do America’s political commentators talk about almost exclusively? Polls. Polls. Polls. They slice and dice the American electorate 26 ways to Sunday and report back on every conceivable demographic. I would not be surprised at all to turn on the TV in the coming days and hear a commentator say, “From our latest poll we’ve discovered that voters who own dogs are 6.3% less likely to choose a candidate who previously owned a cat.”

This all came crashing back to me two nights ago. I was listening to two commentators talk about one of the major candidates for President. They were discussing how some people close a particular candidate had disclosed the candidate’s struggle with  insecurity and emotional maturity. They talked about how the candidate could better manage those challenges in order to win over voters. They talked about voters’ potential reactions to the candidate if the candidate were to publicly talk about those personal challenges. But there was not a single part of the discussion that even hinted at how such issues might impact the candidate’s ability to lead the country well. The conversation was squarely and only about managing voter perceptions in order to get elected.

A few years ago I had lunch with author and consultant Steve Wilson. Steve is a student of America. He authored "A Misdiagnosed Country" which makes the case that the problems America finds itself in stem from a lack of depth in what we focus on and care about the most. Knowing this, I asked him about the our political process. He reported with a bit of dejection that only 21% of the American people look beyond the surface in the political process.  He went on to say that when choosing who they will vote for, Americans focus on three things: hair (physical appearance), height (again, physical appearance), and hundreds (as in $, financial wealth and backing). This is where the media has led Americans. This is where Americans have allowed themselves to be led.

Why This Should Matter to You

This should matter to anyone -- American or not -- who cares about leadership. I don’t say that because the whole world should care who the President of the United States is; I say that because I fear that we are capable of stumbling into similar traps within our own organizations.

When we think about the promotion of subordinates, superiors, peers, and even ourselves, many of us are tempted to think almost exclusively about whether or not the promotion can be won. Does the person in question have – and pay attention to the wording here – the political connections to get the promotion? Who would help him/her/me get the job? What enemies might keep him/her/me from getting the job?

I’m not suggesting that these questions have zero place in organizational dynamics, but I am wondering if the most important and most repeated questions ought to be different. Instead shouldn’t we be asking, “Will he/she/I be a great leader in that new position? If so, what tells us so? If not, why not?”

Don’t Get Sucked In

If we follow the American media when it comes to how we think about leaders, we’ll miss the mark. We’ll find ourselves coaching others on how to navigate the organization without helping them understand how to lead. When pursuing our own promotions, we’ll focus on managing others’ perceptions of us instead of working to become a leader worth following.

There are some people who believe that navigating their organization is a critical part of leading well. It’s true that playing well with others is important. But telling ourselves that becoming a great navigator of organizational politics is sufficient for determining who will be the best leader in the role is the same as selling ourselves a bag of air. Once the promoted individual arrives in the new role, it will be time to lead. And if all he/she knows how to do is navigate organizational politics, everyone should expect a bumpy ride ahead.

If its desire is to assist the American people in choosing the next leader of our country, what the American media is doing with its political coverage is just plain stupid. If we mimic them within our own lives and organizations, we will have forgotten to address what should be at the very heart of our analysis and dialogue for any open leadership role: the ability to actually lead.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you ever worked within an organizational culture or for a leader who was focused on organizational politics rather than developing and promoting people who could actually lead? Tell us about it.  We'd love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

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