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Some like ‘em strong and wrong

It seems as true today as it was then.

Former President Bill Clinton told the Democratic Leadership Council in 2002, “When people feel uncertain, they’d rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right.” It was his post-mortem after Democrats went down to defeat in that year’s midterm elections.

Fast forward to the present and notice how often you hear Donald Trump’s supporters say they’re with him because, “He’s strong.” “He’s a leader,” and “He fights.” They’re not agreeing with some arcane policy positions, they’re reacting to their perceptions of Trump’s personality. Loud, aggressive, freewheeling. And they like it.

This is all about communication.

I’m wondering if the same communication issue shows up in our businesses too.

It’s been on my mind since I read a New York Times op-ed from a UC Berkeley political science professor and author. M. Steven Fish’s headline: Trump Knows Dominance Wins. Someone Tell Democrats.

Like Bill Clinton, Fish points out how effective strength or dominance is when it comes to politics. Republicans from Trump on down embrace conflict, call out disagreements, and double down on us-vs-them rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Democrats try hard to be inclusive, accommodating, and conciliatory with everybody. You know, they tell us over and over their party is “a big tent.”

Don’t we want government officials to include everyone? To be generally nice to others? To build bridges instead of walls? Maybe. But then Fish points to research, including this:

“The American National Elections Studies has polled voters on presidential candidates’ traits since the 1980s, and the candidate who rated higher on ‘strong leadership’ has never lost. The one who more people agree ‘really cares about people like you’ loses about half the time.”

Of course, strength and caring can go together. Fish points to Democrats’ own tradition of dominance politics as practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, among others. Those guys had a powerful presence and they used it. Sometimes to offer help to Americans who needed support.

He also cites Joe Biden’s most recent State of the Union address as an example of Biden sounding stronger than he often does. I’d add the president’s even more recent invitation to his opponent to debate in June and again in September—that was an assertive move.

On balance though, Trump still seems to have the edge when it comes to the perception of power. And voters are drawn to that perception of power.

My question remains: how does this play out in business?

Are we drawn to the perception of power when it comes to our CEO, our consultants, or our best client?

Thinking about “strong and wrong” as opposed to “weak and right” didn’t get me too far. It helps to shift from “strength” to “dominance,” as in the DiSC profile’s “D.”

Plenty of business leaders have a high D profile. They’re decisive, competitive, and focused, often relentlessly, on results.

However, they’re not only dominant, because of course nobody is all one type. Most people in the upper tiers of the org chart seem to combine their Dominance trait primarily with Influence or Conscientiousness.

The combination explains a lot about how we perceive leaders and what we expect from our leaders in business.

You might remember recently I shared an updated view of Executive Presence, incorporating some new research. TL;DR – inclusiveness and respect for others are now part of the gravitas package. And listening is right up there with strong speaking skills when it comes to communication.

So, in general, businesses look for a kind of tempered strength when they hire an executive or bring in a consultant. Yes to decisive and confident. And yes to treating others at every level with respect and really listening to alternate points of view.

Can we bring that package into politics?

Instead of cartoonish displays of dominance, we’d all be better off, it seems to me, if our government leaders demonstrated that same combination of qualities. Decisive and inclusive. Confident and open to other opinions.

They could be strong without the blustering, bullying, and B.S., couldn’t they? In fairness, some of them are, but I pay attention to the way politicians communicate, and I hear a lot of insults and aggression.

That version of strength clearly still appeals to some voters. I’m not one of them, are you?