• Hilary Bryan

Lessons for leaders from the campaign trail

If you're a political junkie like me, a General Election here and a US Presidential Election at the same time is a high-grade fix.

Policies? Rational argument? Voters weighing up what's in their best interest? I don't think so. 

Instead, we need to understand the neuroscience of how and why people vote. And we've got plenty of evidence that emotion wins over rational argument. If this works for politicians and voters, it also works for leaders and those they lead.


Drew Westen, author of the seminal book, The Political Brain, (on the left) and Lynton Crosby, a successful political strategist (on the right) both agree that when voters are faced with reason and emotion, emotion invariably wins. If you've got time, watch Lynton Crosby's Master Class: Political Campaigning:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H_YareK6WKk

Emotion moves people. Image: Nick Fewings, Unsplash

So, do policies matter at all? Yes, to the extent they demonstrate the values and beliefs of a candidate. But when they start getting too technical, it doesn't work that well. Remember, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern in this campaign talking about infrastructure investment resulting in 'double duty'? She meant it creates jobs and a community asset. People didn't get it and she dropped the phrase pretty quickly. 

It's a bit like marginal tax rates and export earnings: too technical. Westen reminds us that our brains are vast networks of nerve cells that together create our experience of the world. Over time, groups of emotions, feelings, images and ideas connect. And it's hard to disconnect them. He conducted a fabulous experiment giving a group of confirmed Democrats and another group of confirmed Republicans contradictory statements from their respective political leaders.

The result? The Democrats didn't see their candidate's statements as particularly contradictory, but they definitely saw the Rebublican candidate's statements as contradictory. And vice versa. Both groups were able to quickly shut down the rational part of their brains when they recognised their political leader's contradictions. But more than that, they turned on their positive emotions to feel good about their partisan political leader despite the contradictory statements. Those old associations and beliefs about their party political leader won out.


This is a valuable lesson for leaders not in the political environment. Why? Their followers are no different than voters. They react emotionally to them. They want to know leaders' stories, backgrounds, values and beliefs. The details of the 10-point plan or 60-page change strategy may well be lost on them: far too rational.

When the eloquent Adlai Stevenson was running for President against Dwight Eisenhower, a woman gushed to the Democratic candidate after a rally: "Every thinking person will be voting for you." Stevenson supposedly replied: "Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority."

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