As a young woman, I yearned to be President. I wanted to see the United States shatter the final glass ceiling. Sadly, women will have to wait at least another four years for that opportunity. As disappointing as the election outcome is for half of our nation, it is not surprising for those of us who understand the role of leadership in winning elections.
My work in politics started in the late 1980’s. It was a time when the first generation of women to be elected in their own right, not assuming the office of a father or husband, was coming into its own and the overwhelmingly male political consulting class was far from organized. It was the adolescence of the professional political machine that dominates Washington, DC today.
Many on today’s political stage were at one time my colleagues or competitors on the campaign trail or among of those covering the races. Often being one of the youngest and, perhaps, the only woman at the table, I quickly understood that there were those who were there to play the game and those who longed to change it. One group was driven by money, power and the win, the other by making a difference and serving the public good. While the lines may have blurred at times, the core motivations remained and those that were willing to win at all costs became the confidantes of the victors and those who spoke truth to power were excused from the circle.
That’s where I first learned about true leadership as I understood that authentic leaders want to hear what others believe rather than be told what people think they want to hear. The challenge for a consultant (who wants to be paid) is that telling candidates what’s real rather than what’s expedient doesn’t work well with leaders who lack integrity. I sat at one too many tables where the consultants who stood to gain the most allowed the truth to slide by and quieted the voices of those of us who tried to say otherwise, only to lose the election. So, I stopped working with candidates and I moved outside the Beltway and to the West Coast where I’ve built a practice guiding clients creating change by fostering leadership for employees and themselves.
On a recent trip to our nation’s Capitol in March of this year, I was surprised to fine the smugness of beltway insiders of Clinton’s inevitability in the face of the Republican primary circus—and this was before Trump clinched the nomination. To be clear, I am not a Trump supporter, nor do I endorse his approach and conduct toward a variety our country’s most vulnerable constituencies. But it unnerved me that not one of the uber-educated, highly connected individuals could fathom how a crass, explicative dropping, outsider like Trump could ever win the Presidency. The insiders’ incredulousness can be seen everyday in our media. Even my beloved NPR, has reporters who are one step shy of disdainful of anyone who says they support Trump.
So what shift needed to be made? What were the Beltway insiders missing?
It is simple—people across this country want to be seen, heard and valued, and it can only be done by someone who is willing to be open, honest and direct about whom he or she is. In other words, a leader has to be real for people to feel they can connect and know that they matter.
This is where the trap lies for consultants, which I’ve seen time and again. “How can people feel that a New York billionaire who’s never held office be one of them?” On paper it doesn’t make sense. Elections are won by targeting demographics, connecting group by group with messages to get them to vote for you. This is how politics works—except that it isn’t any longer. There are larger forces at play than those on the spreadsheet of a micro targeting guru—people aren’t voting the way they are supposed to. There is a new calculation at play and it is one Secretary Clinton missed.
In an era where the economy is shifting, our security threats morphing and the pace of change increasing people want what’s real, not what’s scripted, they want the truth even if they don’t like it and they want someone to do what’s in their best interest even if its unpopular. That’s a recipe for an outsider that wants to do away with business as usual in Washington and do something different.
This is not a phenomenon relegated to the political right. Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign and continued popularity after his defeat is a huge sign that the left has its own problems with the Clinton mantra of incremental change and trustworthiness based on experience. These were not people who simply fell in line as the distaste for a tone-deaf candidate outweighed the concern over a candidate who, while not sharing their values, promises to bust up a dysfunctional system.
For those of us who would have chosen a different election outcome, the time is now to lead—lead in our neighborhoods, communities and world. We have to look to ourselves as the answer, not just the politicians to address the issues facing us. If we can use this election as the impetus to be better and do better then perhaps a Donald Trump presidency will have served to strengthen the true core of our country that we know transcends the identity of our current elected leader.