July 28, 2016 By FTI Consulting
Pundits everywhere are marveling at the political oratory of Michelle Obama and Bernie Sanders on Monday night, but their brilliance wasn’t just political. It was deeply personal. After fourteen months of allegiance to Mr. Sanders, and two terms with Mr. and Mrs. Obama, both speakers were carefully steering their audience through significant change – and in the case of Bernie’s supporters (many of whom were openly weeping) the stages of grief.
The journey started on choppy waters, with the DNC email controversy stoking both the denial and anger that were depressing Bernie’s delegates in Philadelphia. The anger bubbled to the surface when the comedian Sarah Silverman told those delegates they were “being ridiculous” – an understandable sentiment from someone getting heckled during their national political debut, but one that the hecklers hardly found convincing.
However, to watch the mood of the room evolve as the night developed was to witness the transformative impact that careful change leadership can offer to leaders everywhere.
The convincing began with Michelle Obama, a trusted, unimpeachable figure who served as the perfect champion for change. Mrs. Obama’s impartiality during the primary campaign allowed her to make an aggressive case for Hillary (and against Trump), and her credibility with all Americans put her in perhaps the best position of any speaker this week to frame the decision in a new and powerful way (“Who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years?”). Even when she made a direct (if thinly veiled) plea to the Bernie faction, to rise above their individual “desires and disappointments” – like Hillary did in 2008 – the hecklers were left speechless. That is the power of a strong change ambassador, to turn the tide within a room, shifting the terms of the debate while starting to bring the most ardent skeptics along with her.
Then, it was time for the leader of the movement to pass the baton onto another’s cause. Bernie Sanders’ speech felt like a masterful balancing act until you realize he was drawing lessons from Change Leadership 101.
First, he didn’t rush it. He let his supporters offer him a seemingly endless applause when he began, and did not provide his strong endorsement of Hillary until he was twelve minutes in. Where Ted Cruz, in his speech last week, drew out self-serving suspense before his plea to “vote your conscious,” Bernie offered patience to allow his people to grieve.
Just as importantly, Bernie made the case on an intellectual level, and made it concrete. Instead of overselling, or washing over the primary battle with a character testament that could have felt insincere, he noted that “any objective observer” would conclude Hillary is the right choice for people who believe what he does. By breaking down the choice in terms of those specific beliefs – related to income inequality, racial disparity and climate change – Bernie channeled the mounting frustration of his supporters (and middle class voters across the country) into more tangible areas, where they could stand with Hillary on common ground.
Any good leader knows that change doesn’t happen in one night, and Bernie’s supporters and sympathizers may need to continue to hear these arguments over and over for the next four months. However, I suspect Bernie and Michelle could give virtually those same speeches, every day until November 8, and they wouldn’t lose their power to convince and mobilize the coalition that Hillary needs to ride to victory.
The mastery of Monday night’s speeches carry lessons for all leaders who are directing their people through meaningful and potentially painful change: to meet people where they are, and patiently guide (rather than force) them towards where you want them to be.