Leadership Lessons We Can Learn from Political Campaigns

by | Dec 8, 2020

From speeches to debates to emails to old-fashioned door-to-door canvassing—everything in a political campaign is designed to figure out how to get people to do things. Not just actual voting; it’s also about donating, volunteering and talking to your friends and family on the candidates’ behalf. This effort to influence behavior is very complementary to leadership.

I got a big, in-person lesson in all of this during this year’s election. For the first time, I volunteered for a campaign and went door-to-door to get out the vote. I learned so much about what it is that campaigns do to influence actions and change behavior and what we can learn from it.

I’m always looking at what I call influencing structures and systems. That’s really pertinent to leadership because influence can be positive, negative, or neutral.

If we want to learn from an influencing system or process, we have to step back for a moment and be objective–regardless of how we may feel about a candidate.

Repeat Your Message and Your Ask

My campaign experience was a good reminder for me about the importance of frequent communication and outreach. In the course of the campaign, it wasn’t unusual to get 10 emails or 20 texts a day from them. Why so many?

To get the result you want, you have to repeat your message and repeat your ask multiple times.

You can’t just ask people nicely one time, “Will you chip in $25 to support the campaign?” Things happen—they forget, they get distracted, other things take priority. But if you ask someone 10 times or even 20 times, they’re more likely to say yes. You’ll hit them at the right time, or you’ll just remind them; but you’ll get the yes.

It’s true that a few people may get irritated at some point and ask you to stop; but the yes you’ll get from the rest are worth the effort.

This was a key takeaway and reminder for me. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, because sometimes people need to be asked multiple times in order to move.

Have a Broad and Diverse Coalition

One of the reasons that the Biden-Harris ticket won is because they purposefully went after a broad and diverse coalition of voters, volunteers, and leadership.

It wasn’t just a matter of numbers, even though the numbers clearly matter.

It’s also about gaining a diversity of rich ideas, an atmosphere of inclusion and a resulting enthusiasm from it. Every organization can benefit from a broader variety of perspectives. We gain creativity, innovation, productivity and impact.

Equip People with the Right Equity-Informed Training

In going with the idea that they needed a broad and diverse coalition, the Biden campaign then thought about what they needed to make sure everyone in their campaign was equipped with the tools and resources they needed to succeed. For the first time ever, they did equity-informed training for their volunteers.

Why was this important? They gave us, their representatives, the tools we needed to speak for Biden-Harris consistently with their message. With training, we could represent them the way they wanted to be represented to the people they wanted to influence.

Sometimes as leaders, we can fall short on this. We may assume that people already have the knowledge in place for their volunteer duty—but they don’t always.

I signed up for two trainings—one geared toward equity-informed events and the other toward equity-informed voting rights and history. These were excellent trainings that really improved my interactions with the people I spoke to on behalf of the campaign.

Ask for Input Directly

In one of the trainings, I learned a ton about the history of voter suppression in America. If you’ve ever wondered why so many people don’t show up to vote, this is a big reason. There’s a long-standing historic feeling of disenfranchisement. They’ve been told in many different ways for a very long time that they don’t matter and their vote doesn’t matter.

It’s easy for some people to think that the right to vote is available; if some people don’t take advantage of it, that’s their problem. However, it’s clearly a problem to be solved for a candidate who wants to win.

How does this apply in an organization? As leaders, we ask for feedback from team members all the time. In the 80s, we installed suggestion boxes. Today, we provide anonymous online sites—because that’s easier, right? But leaders then and now end up scratching their heads when they don’t get much feedback. Often, they think that if they don’t hear anything, there must not be a problem.

But it’s important to think about why it is that they aren’t getting much feedback. Why isn’t asking them to do something always enough? It may be enough for white, cisgender, heterosexual males—because they’re comfortable taking that space. But everyone else has a different lived experience around that.

In a campaign, the way to undo that inertia is to knock on doors and talk to potential voters directly. That’s what I did. I knocked on doors, told them why their vote was important, asked for their vote and offered help or direction if they needed it.

What does that look like in an organization? If we’ve hired for diversity but then we don’t address that some people don’t feel seen or understood, we wonder why they aren’t volunteering for task forces, asking for raises, or leaving after a year. There’s something else that we’re missing.

Often it means giving people information to make it safe to participate. It also means reaching out to ask for what we want from them—frequently and directly.

Be Proactive with Your PR

One of the stranger effects of social media is that now more than ever, it’s both harder and easier to lie.

If you’re talking the talk but not walking the walk, it’s easier for people to discover it and rat you out to the world. But also, disinformation agendas grow like wildfire. Some of what’s going around now on social media is crazy, and millions of people are buying it. Fear and anger spread quickly.

What’s the lesson for leaders?

When you’re trying to build an influencing machine, you need to pay attention to both. Make sure that you’re walking the talk to minimize opportunities for there to be a disconnect that people will point out. Also pay attention to what people are saying that isn’t true. You can’t just ignore negativity and hope that cooler heads or facts will prevail. How will you deal with that? How will you counter it?

We need offensive (rather than defensive) PR more than ever. We can’t only be talking about great things we’re doing. We need to be creating our narrative and defending it. We need to be challenging alternative narratives that may be out there.

These lessons have really been brought home to me in this campaign.

However we may feel about any particular candidate, there are strong lessons in both local and national campaigns for us as leaders. Look at where they were successful and where they failed, and take those valuable lessons back to our own organizations.

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