Presidential Debates, Professors, and Leadership

The first US Presidential Debate of 2012 concluded a few hours ago and, as usual with events of this nature, it offered some lessons on leadership. Analyzing the debate immediately afterwards on CNN, David Gergen opined that President Obama was “professorial.” “And more!” he said. To use the word “professorial” to describe Obama—and perhaps Romney too—in today’s debate reinforces stereotypes that do a disservice to the great profession of teaching. In fact, more than any other profession, the teaching profession knows the value of drama and the power drama bestows on communication. As anybody who has stood in front of a class of disinterested students knows, the professor dons an acting persona that may be totally different from his or her non-teaching persona. Every professor knows that it’s not enough to know–however well or however much in detail–the intricacies of math, or the habits of societies, or the facts of history, or the nuances of poetry. To be effective, to lead students into knowledge, professors know that they need to be dramatic.

In contrast, in today’s debate, both Obama and Romney, came across as boring walking-talking-account-books–not as professors, and definitely not as leaders. Consider for a moment how Obama could have responded to the moderator Jim Lehrer’s question of how, going forward, he would work toward resolving the stalemate with the Congress in Washington. In boring tones, Obama declared that leadership is about knowing what you want to achieve and saying “No!” to people sometimes in order to achieve that goal.  What if instead, Obama had waved his hand in the air vigorously for a moment and then turned to Jim Lehrer and asked him if he had heard a clap? He could have then said that it takes two hands to clap and that the Republican Congress was the other hand. He could have remarked somewhere that Romney was lucky that for him, working across the aisle as Governor in Massachusetts meant that he was negotiating with Democrats. He could have then gone on to say that would continue to work vigorously on negotiating with the Republicans and at the same time would continue to hope that the people of America would send more people to Congress who didn’t think that negotiation always compromises principles. That would have been a leader using the power of drama to persuade.

 

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