No shortage of digital ink has been spilled examining the causes and amplifying the outrages of Hillary Clinton’s shocking electoral loss to Donald Trump last month. But, for leaders interested in things other than politics, Edward-Isaac Dovere‘s piece for Politico — “How Clinton Lost Michigan–and Blew the Election” — is the most interesting and insightful piece of journalism to come out of this post-election period. Set aside the politics of the story, and even ignore the candidate herself. Dovere’s article is a fascinating autopsy of how an organization’s leadership team utterly failed, and a blueprint for leaders in any type of organization to avoid the same, predictable fate.
If you are an organizational leader, here are four lessons from Team Clinton’s loss that you should think long and hard about as it relates to how you lead:
1. The Hubris Of Knowing Better
Hubris — it is that special brand of Pride that has been a favorite character flaw used by storytellers since the days of Homer’s Greek epics. In The Illiad, it is Niobe’s pride in her lineage and fertility that causes her to anger the gods and lose all of her 14 children as a consequence. With the leadership brain-trust guiding Team Clinton’s operation from the campaign’s headquarters in Brooklyn, hubris pushed their faith in their own smarts to the extreme.
Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.
. . .
Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.
Michigan organizers were shocked. It was the latest case of Brooklyn ignoring on-the-ground intel and pleas for help in a race that they felt slipping away at the end.
“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” said Donnie Fowler, who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee during the final months of the campaign. “They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”
Set aside the bizarre tactic of trying to head-fake the other side rather than admit a weakness by shoring it up. This decision by the Clinton campaign’s management team was the classic calling card of Hubris, in which leaders succumb to the easy temptation of confusing experience with intelligence, and under-valuing the information and insights of front-line workers as a result.
2. The View From The Echo Chamber
Dovere’s long article is full of detailed accounts of an ongoing disagreement between the Clinton campaign’s national headquarters and the various local teams leading efforts at the state level in key battleground states. Yet, amidst the story of these arguments was this single line that was both astonishing and yet predictable:
Politico spoke to a dozen officials working on or with Clinton’s Michigan campaign, and more than a dozen scattered among other battleground states, her Brooklyn headquarters and in Washington who describe an ongoing fight about campaign tactics, an inability to get top leadership to change course.
Then again, according to senior people in Brooklyn, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook never heard any of those complaints directly from anyone on his state teams before Election Day.
There is no shortage of wisdom available to leaders teaching against the dangers of surrounding themselves with “yes men,” usually citing Abraham Lincoln’s Team of Rivals in the process. Any leader who actively seeks out uniformity of opinion and only positive news is doomed to fail.
Far more common, however, is the phenomenon of the management team putting the leader into the self-reinforcing isolation of an echo chamber all on their own. In Hans Christian Andersen’s iconic tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, each of the emperor’s ministers had his own self-interested reason for keeping the lie going:
“I know I’m not stupid,” the man thought, “so it must be that I’m unworthy of my good office. That’s strange. I mustn’t let anyone find it out, though.” So he praised the material he did not see. He declared he was delighted with the beautiful colors and the exquisite pattern. To the Emperor he said, “It held me spellbound.”
If campaign manager Robbie Mook was kept in the dark about the concerns of various state officials, it’s hard to imagine it was for reasons much different than those of the Emperor’s ministers: self-image protection.
3. Falling In Love With The Plan
It should go without saying that strategic planning is a vital component of any leader’s hopes of successfully accomplishing the organization’s mission. However, there is a real danger in becoming too attached to the view of the world that is part of that planning. Emotional attachment to the models we create is perfectly understandable. However, when it is unacknowledged, and the pride of ownership masks itself as scientific objectivity, a nasty leadership failure will likely result as new, contradictory information is disbelieved or ignored.
The anecdotes are different but the narrative is the same across battlegrounds, where Democratic operatives lament a one-size-fits-all approach drawn entirely from pre-selected data — operatives spit out “the model, the model,” as they complain about it — guiding Mook’s decisions on field, television, everything else. That’s the same data operation, of course, that predicted Clinton would win the Iowa caucuses by 6 percentage points (she scraped by with two-tenths of a point), and that predicted she’d beat Bernie Sanders in Michigan (he won by 1.5 points).
. . .
“It was very surgical and corporate. They had their model, this is how they’re going to do it. Their thing was, ‘We don’t have to leave [literature] at the doors, everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is,’”
. . .
Operatives watched packets of real-time voter information piled up in bins at the coordinated campaign headquarters. The sheets were updated only when they got ripped, or soaked with coffee. Existing packets with notes from the volunteers, including highlighting how much Trump inclination there was among some of the white male union members the Clinton campaign was sure would be with her, were tossed in the garbage.
. . .
On the morning of Election Day, internal Clinton campaign numbers had her winning Michigan by 5 points. By 1 p.m., an aide on the ground called headquarters; the voter turnout tracking system they’d built themselves in defiance of orders — Brooklyn had told operatives in the state they didn’t care about those numbers, and specifically told them not to use any resources to get them — showed urban precincts down 25 percent. Maybe they should get worried, the Michigan operatives said.
Nope, they were told. She was going to win by 5. All Brooklyn’s data said so.
When I read accounts like this, I can’t help but envision a 16th Century sailing ship on an exploration mission, in which the professional cartographers hunched over their maps in the hull of the ship keep insisting to the captain that there is no land ahead because the maps say there isn’t … even as the dirty uneducated deck hands up on deck keep shouting “Land HO!”
There’s a reason racing tire engineers actually go to the track to see their designs tested: to gain actual data that may just expose flaws in their plan’s design. In Team Clinton’s case, they had actual experience in the Michigan primary that should have told them their model of Michigan’s electorate was flawed. Instead, the contradictory data was ignored. When new information is dismissed as mere unreliable anecdote, and the proof of such is the very fact that the new information contradicts the model, a management team is well on its way towards a leadership failure.
4. Dancing To Fear’s Tune
All of the above leadership errors can fall broadly into the category of an over-estimation of and reliance upon the team’s own professional expertise. It is, therefore, striking to read near the end of Dovere’s article of the ill-fated decisions made by the campaign’s strategic leadership team as a result of that most unscientific of motivators: Fear.
But there also were millions approved for transfer from Clinton’s campaign for use by the DNC — which, under a plan devised by Brazile to drum up urban turnout out of fear that Trump would win the popular vote while losing the electoral vote, got dumped into Chicago and New Orleans, far from anywhere that would have made a difference in the election.
Regardless of what one thinks of the Electoral College and its role in selecting who will serve as President, Team Clinton knew from Day One the rules governing how the election would be won or lost: winning required earning at least 270 electoral college votes as assigned by the results of each state’s individual election results. By the rules in place since the dawn of the Republic, a national popular vote total is interesting trivia, at best, and an irrelevancy at worst.
The Clinton campaign leadership feared a scenario in which Donald Trump appeared more popular but still lost. As a result of that fear, they made the head-scratching choice to spend much needed dollars and efforts in running up vote totals in states in which the extra margin of victory literally meant nothing, while ignoring places like Michigan in which a relatively small margin of victory ended up costing them everything.
Leaders everywhere, read the account of Team Clinton’s failure and take note:
• Humility is the set of brakes that will keep you from driving off the cliff;
• Everyone becomes stupid inside of an echo chamber, eventually;
• If your model doesn’t leave room for Reality to have a say, throw out the model;
• Fear is a liar.