Hillary’s Peen-Ultimate Leadership Mistake

The worst mistakes I’ve made in life and leadership have always involved waiting too long to fire someone.

Whether I’m hanging onto a relationship long after love is gone or hanging onto an employee long after positive value to the organization has diminished beyond the point of return, my loyalty tends to trump my better sense. And like most women, including it appears, Hillary Clinton, I always think I can fix the situation. That I can retrain, redo the job description, or refocus the person’s priorities so his or her performance will magically improve. After all, maybe it was my fault; I didn’t provide sufficient direction or support to tease out their talents. Surely if I did, Ms or Mr. X would shine again.

Women are particularly sensitive to the connective filaments in the web of relationships that make up our organizations, just as we’re sensitive to them within our families. We counsel our kids to eat Aunt Ida’s hideous orange jello, carrot, and horseradish salad because she’s such a good soul after all. Past contributions, we think, deserve to be recognized, good intent respected

These qualities serve women well, until they don’t, as has been the case with Clinton and her top advisors. Many said she kept Patti Solis Doyle as her campaign manager out of loyalty (and perhaps fear of what the firing would do to her relationships with Hispanics) long after Solis Doyle’s effectiveness had waned.

And then there’s Mark Penn.

Penn is obviously a smart guy. After all, he’s global CEO of the enormously successful public relations firm Burson-Marstellar and has a best selling book that lays out his notions of a microtrend-focused political strategy designed to appeal to the maximum number of voters by speaking to each psychographic in its own tongue. He’s intricately connected within the web of Clinton supporters, and has a full throated commitment to her candidacy.

But in no small part owing to his boorish personality which he too often flaunted on prime time TV, Penn’s full throated comments needed to be shut off long ago.

Penn’s advice, while perhaps valuable when the campaign was forming based on the political landscape of 2006, soon became a net negative. He was too rigidly wedded to it, couldn’t flex and pivot when the young upstart Barack Obama shifted the earth beneath them and created new environmental conditions within which the campaign would be waged.

Seems the sophisticated techniques of segmenting the electorate and moving the parts with wedge issues, so effective for Karl Rove to move the ideological Republican right during the past several elections, proved less likely to move Democratic and Independent constituencies in this election cycle. A simple unifying message that elevates voters’ sense of patriotic mission—much like messages JFK and Ronald Reagan were so good at delivering whether or not they could ultimately deliver the goods–is once again the requisite new new thing to propel a candidate to victory.

The last and latest arrow in Penn’s capacious quiver of insults to the campaign’s integrity was taking the Columbian government on as a client to lobby for a trade agreement that Clinton opposes. That astonishing degree of boorishness and bad judgment finally had to break even the most loyal boss’s back.

Sadly, to many voters, it doesn’t matter now how brilliantly Clinton has mastered the enormous range of policy issues desperately needing attention in our beleaguered nation. It doesn’t matter that her health plan comes closest to universal coverage or that she is more seasoned on the international diplomacy front. It matters not that she has endless capacity for the hard work required to bring politicians together to create those “solutions that work”, as her slogan touts.

What matters to the 2008 electorate is that Obama speaks in words that make people feel like they themselves are being brought together, that they are elevated above the mundane, slogging work of finding wonky solutions. Where Penn says there are “hundreds of America’s”, which may be accurate social science, Obama makes the electorate feel good about themselves by assuring them there is one America.

However realistic it is to believe that good feelings will translate into the concrete change we need, it’s where the people are today–miles from the cautious beaten path where Penn’s strategic advice led Clinton.

Clinton should have cut Penn loose when it became evident early on in the campaign that he wasn’t serving her well. I’ll bet the love faded long ago and she was hanging onto the relationship for a web of other reasons. That she finally fired him as chief consultant—though strangely retaining him as pollster, not realizing that failure to fire cleanly is as bad as not firing at all–is a Hail Mary pass, but it’s the best supporters can hope for. Sometimes miracles happen despite the odds; otherwise there would be no buyers for lottery tickets.

Pennsylvania’s scorecard will tell us definitively whether the clock had run out before this long overdue firing decision was made.

And, Mark, don’t let the door hit you as you leave.

GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The LeadPeople has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”

As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.

4 thoughts on “Hillary’s Peen-Ultimate Leadership Mistake

  1. Great post, Gloria. It goes a long way toward validating what many of us in the Obama camp have long known: When it comes to judgment, Senator Clinton is dangerously inept. For all her intelligence and commitment to Democratic ideals, she just seems to get things wrong most of the time.

    You write, “And like most women, including it appears, Hillary Clinton, I always think I can fix the situation. That I can retrain, redo the job description, or refocus the person’s priorities so his or her performance will magically improve.”

    What if, as Commander-in-Chief, Hillary Clinton were likewise to rely on the faulty council of advisers like Penn or, worse, the Democratic equivalent of a Karl Rove, and for too long keep them on her staff? What happens when her loyalty and wishful thinking has real-world consequences? Consequences that affect not only a presidential primary race but the lives of millions of Americans at home and in the deserts of the Middle East?

    1. My answer, Stout House (and by the way, what an interesting screen name) is that women make up for trying too hard to “fix” people by working twice as hard themselves. It’s well documented that women in the workplace prepare much more diligently than men for whatever issues or tasks are at hand, and are less likely to be recognized or rewarded for same.

      We see this in Barack, who saunters into events looking like Mr. Cool, whereas Hillary will have copious notes despite the fact she rarely needs to consult them, and she works a lot harder to deliver substance in her messages. Unfortunately for her, that’s not what many people are looking for this time around.

      I have no doubt that Hillary’s admirable points would more than make up for her uber-loyalty. In general, by the way, loyalty is a good thing. If money is the mothers’ milk of politics, then loyalty is what greases the machinery of government and makes it possible for things to actually get done.

      1. You reveal much in your word choice regarding Senator Obama. Where you see sauntering, I see a man walking into a room. Where you see Mr. Cool, I see an intelligent, self-possessed politician whose message, far from ringing hollow, is every bit as substantive as Senator Clinton’s, only delivered more effectively.

        Like your candidate’s grotesque mockery of Obama in Rhode Island, where she gestured to the heavens while talking of the skies parting and a celestial light shining down upon her opponent, you mock me when you say, as you have repeatedly, that substance is “not what many people are looking for this time around.” You are wrong. By slow degrees, as Hillary Clinton daily broke my heart with her transparent evasions, misinformation, innuendo, and barefaced Rovian whoppers, I saw Senator Obama rise on the strength of his substance and chose my candidate accordingly.

        For what it’s worth, I’m every bit the pragmatist you are. I understand the value of loyalty in politics. But Hillary and her supporters would do well to recall the advice of Abraham Lincoln: “Stand with anybody that stands right, stand with him while he is right, and part with him when he goes wrong.” Masculine pronouns aside, it is sound advice.

        Bill Richardson did precisely that and was attacked by James Carville, who demonstrated with his “Judas” nonsense that, to the Clintons, loyalty trumps all. Mark Penn “went wrong” from the outset, and yet he remained with the campaign just long enough to all but destroy it. Loyalty is one thing. Blind loyalty of the sort that has characterized the entire Bush presidency is another thing altogether. I’ve had my fill of it.

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