Last week I read an interesting article in the New York Times on the resignation of Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan. The article serves as an autopsy of sorts on the failed leadership of Mr. Kan. It argues that lack of decisive leadership and contextual issues (like the glacial, internecine Japanese bureaucracy) were key factors in Mr. Kan’s failure and resignation, but also suggests woeful communication was his Achilles heel. As the article notes: “Even his supporters say [Kan’s] biggest liability was an inability to communicate with the public. Like many of his predecessors, he was often compared unfavorably with a previous iconoclastic leader, Junichiro Koizumi, who proved much more successful as prime minister in his five-year term, which ended in 2006.” According to reports, Kan downplayed communication and believed leaders should be judged on their actions and not words.
This article sparked some discussion among my peers about the role of communication in politics, and raised some interesting issues. This story seems to provide additional evidence that lackluster communications is a serious liability in politics, particularly when coupled with lack of personality and/or compelling policies. That seems fairly straight-forward: bad policy mixed with bad communications is bad politics. But it’s doubtful Mr. Kan could have survived even if he was a great communicator, given the intractable challenges of his situation. The tantalizing question – which is raised often in American politics – is whether great communications is enough to overcome shallow or dubious policies, or questionable activities.
I’ve long argued you can’t communicate around a bad policy or decision, but that good communication is the price of entry in politics and can make a huge difference in how people perceive things. Many critics of President Obama, to use one example, frequently criticize him for being an emperor with no clothes…a strong orator and superior communicator with little follow-through and disastrous policies (their words.) Whatever your views on President Obama or his administration, I would argue he’s given himself a fighting chance at re-election by putting the best face possible on his ideas and programs. It will be interesting to watch how the two parties argue for their political recipe and vision over the coming months.
Perhaps the best lesson here about the value of communication in politics can be found in the amazing story of President Clinton – who leveraged his strong two-way communication skills and ability to empathize to re-election and ultimately public redemption. Initially, his ill-advised personal issues and obfuscation seriously damaged his reputation and leadership, but over time his affable communication style played a big role in his rehabilitation. His greatest gift was not only the ability to share information in a way that was relevant to citizens outside the beltway, but to listen and adapt his message (and presumably his policies) for maximum resonance and impact. He also seemed to become more candid and less calculating over the years…foibles and all. Perhaps that the ultimate requirement of good communication in politics: honesty.