The 2016 race for the White House has raised many more questions about leadership than it has answered. What attributes do Americans want in their next President? Experience? Decisiveness? Honesty? And how much does likeability matter?
Thus far, the primary debates have been riddled with more nasty accusations and counter- punches than we’d allow in a sporting event or divorce court, never mind at the average supper table. Yet, when it comes to the Presidential contenders, many Americans see these behaviors as strength, certainty and resolve. Frontal assaults reflect fearlessness. Demeaning comments, superiority. Interrupting and talking over each other, a sign of taking charge. Welcome to the new portrait of leadership.
This isn’t the first time America has struggled with leadership and likeability. Some of the most successful helmsmen in history didn’t have personality traits we admired. No one would argue whether George Patton was one of the greatest generals to serve in the military, or, whether he was so brash, conceited and disagreeable even his superiors took pains to avoid him. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister of the 20th century, was enormously unpopular with the working class in spite of the fact that her economic policies saved the country from a catastrophic recession and record unemployment. Her cold, strict demeanor quickly earned her the nickname “The Iron Lady.” In modern times, business and government leaders like Larry Ellison, Dianne Feinstein, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Rumsfeld and Eric Schmidt have been widely admired for their talent and success, but few, if any, would describe them as “likeable.”
Which begs the question: what if, in addition to skill, these individuals had been likeable? Would they have achieved greater successes? What if Patton had had Douglas MacArthur’s ability to bring people together? What if Donald Rumsfeld possessed the ability to inspire passion in others? Here we turn to management theorist James Zenger for the answer. Zenger, surveyed 60,000 employees to understand their perception of their superiors. It turns out the most successful leaders were those who focused on bottom line results while also possessing superior social skills. In other words, talent, strength and authority may get you part of the way, but the ability to connect with and motivate others is just as important. Which is another way of saying you need an awful lot of talent to make up for being unlikeable.
Among the current field of candidates for the Oval Office, one hopeful is struggling more than others when it comes to likeability. Popular columnist for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank, notes there’s a subtle difference between how a female is perceived when she demonstrates command versus how a male is perceived when he displays authority. “There’s a trade off for Hillary Clinton in terms of showing warmth and showing strength…. The tougher she presents herself as a leader the less likeable she becomes,” said Milbank. He continued, “People often don’t think about it. It’s not conscious. . For example when Bernie Sanders shouts, you sense that he’s being passionate. But when Hillary Clinton shouts, it sounds like she’s screaming at you, she’s yelling at you. People feel like they are being lectured by their mother.”
Raising their voices and interrupting also works for Trump, Cruz and Rubio. The louder they get the more they’re perceived as passionate, strong, and forceful. So much so that normally soft-spoken John Kasich, was forced to raise his voice and claim he was the only adult on the stage (a backhanded dig at the other participants) in the recent debate. But when Clinton tries to use these same tactics, she’s described as feisty, argumentative, and asked to “stop screaming.”
And what happens when she doesn’t raise her voice or punch back? She’s called cunning, weak, and accused of not being “commander-like.”
Lead researcher Marianne Cooper, “success and likeability do not go together for women.” The two are negatively correlated. Alison Dahl Crossley, Associate Director of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research agrees. She calls the challenge for women leaders “the likeability penalty.” “The more competent a woman is, the less likable she is judged to be. The opposite also holds true: the more likable a woman is, the less competent.” In a recent article, Milbank suggested this likeability penalty is once again hurting Clinton’s chances: “The criticism (of Clinton) is the same as it was in 2008: She doesn’t connect. She isn’t likeable. She doesn’t inspire. She seems shrill.”
Where does the other frontrunner stand in terms of likeability? Despite calling a U.S. President and member of the Senate liars, referring to Marco Rubio as “Little Marco,” and fighting with the Pope, the former President of Mexico, and leader of the GOP establishment; Donald Trump, is one of the most popular candidates in Republican history. He may throw out insults and offer less substance in terms of how a President would lower taxes, create jobs, abolish the IRS, bring peace to the Middle East and build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, but his likability scores eclipse every other candidate in the race. And not by a small margin. Freddy Gray, deputy editor of The Spectator recently opined, “It doesn’t matter that Trump’s speech jumps about all over place: his inarticulacy is itself an expression of rage. Nor does it matter that his policies for restoring American greatness amount to little more than a few madcap ideas…. Angry voters don’t have time for details.”
History has shown that Americans will, and have, accepted unlikeable leaders, when individuals possess exceptional talent. But in 2016, likeability, not talent, may be the most important attribute going, because it ensures amnesty for insults, snarky come-backs and wild accusations. This is going to be a difficult pill for the Clinton campaign to swallow, as well as voters wanting a substantial discourse on the issues.
And for voter’s who were disappointed to see Ben Carson, Jim Webb and Rand Paul drop out â or who were hoping that Mitt Romney, Michael Bloomberg, or Joe Biden would throw their hat in the ring â take a good hard look at what’s winning. This is not their year. Paul Rudd has a better chance.