Leadership Lessons from Bernie Sanders

Leadership Lessons from Bernie Sanders

Another surprise in this year’s presidential campaign has been the popularity of Bernie Sanders. He came seemingly of the nowhere to catapult to an almost-even position with Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. Who is Bernie Sanders, and what has he done in such a short time to rise to such prominence? Although he has been in the House of Representatives since 1991, serving as an Independent from Vermont, he is hardly a household name outside of his home state! How can his popularity be explained? He has been attracting unexpectedly large crowds across the country and has a broad, growing base of support.

1. Authenticity

Sanders’ message and platform are congruent with his behavior. Sanders fights for what he believes in. His belief in civil rights has led him to be arrested for coordinating a sit-in protest. He was at the forefront of representing LGBT rights. He has introduced legislation for raising the minimum wage. He has been against the invasion of Iraq from the beginning. He was an early voice warning about the dangers of climate change. He has not been afraid to go up against the establishment. His long-term record is consistent with this.

Unlike the view that most politicians cater to polls and their audiences, Sanders does not seem to care what other people think of him, and he says what is on his mind without regard for the consequences. At a time when Super PACs and wealthy supporters rule candidates, Sanders takes pride in not having a PAC or taking corporate money to finance his campaign. Prior to getting into politics, he worked as a carpenter for a period of time. He came from a working-class family and did not grow up in a wealthy environment. Part of his appeal is that he relates well to the common people.

At a time when people’s opinions of candidates are unfortunately shaped by negative-ad campaigning, robo-calls, and pointless vague phrases about why they are the best candidates, Sanders presents a platform that has been consistent over time. People hunger for this kind of authenticity.

2. Targeting His Message

Sanders has a long history of having represented the poor, minorities, and those otherwise disenfranchised, rather than the wealthy and those he considers entitled. This message alone speaks to those who share the feeling that they have little power and that the wealthy and powerful are the decision makers. He targets those who want to see change, not just on a personal level, but also on a global level. He wants to represent the needs of everyday, ordinary people, and not the rich and powerful. Sanders, himself, has the lowest net worth of any of the candidates in either party—again, demonstrating that he is not part of the rich and famous.

Sanders works to inspire and motivate people who see themselves as having been victimized by the powerful and wealthy. His message of engaging people to be involved in the political process has resonated with this group. He gives people the sense that they can make a difference and are not alone and powerless. This message has had particular impact on young voters. His message of wanting control of the government to be in the hands of the people, not in the hands of a few powerful elite, has struck a chord with his base. He addresses the growing discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots and the inequality of the distribution of wealth.

3. Communication

Perhaps the greatest reason for Sanders’ popularity has been his extraordinary success in communicating to his supporters and would-be supporters. Before each speaking event, Sanders’ team puts out “blast” social media messages as to the time, place, and purpose of each event. His use of social media is unparalleled, even by those candidates with more campaign money than Sanders. His campaign has a huge number of volunteers that have adopted a method of signing up supporters at all his events for text message alerts. These volunteers have nationwide conference calls every other week to train people how to best use Twitter and Facebook for his campaign. These grassroots efforts have contributed significantly to the record crowds he has gathered.

In addition to his effective methods and frequent communication, he was also among the first of the candidates to have clearly laid out his platform. Often, other candidates offer vague platitudes when moderators ask about their positions or they disregard questions completely and use the time to expound on their rehearsed talking points. In contrast, Sanders published his “Agenda for America: 12 Steps Forward” at the same time that he announced his candidacy. While many candidates continue to waffle on where they stand on certain issues, Sanders has been clear from the beginning on how and where he will focus his efforts.

When we look at Sanders’ campaign and his unexpected popularity, we see that he has provided three major lessons in leadership that have resonated with his following:

Authenticity: He has demonstrated that the manner in which he has lived his life has been consistent with the positions he has taken as a candidate. Employees consistently view authenticity as one of the most desirable characteristics in their leaders—right up there with trustworthiness.

Clarity of Messaging: Sanders effectively offers a clear and compelling message. It is not uncommon for organizations to have “lost their way” or to have difficulty articulating their strategies. A Sanders-led organization will have no such problem.

Communication: Sanders has demonstrated high levels of effectiveness in the variety of methods and frequency of his communication. Poor communication consistently ranks among the chief complaints employees have of their leaders.

Whether or not you like Sanders’ politics, he provides good examples of how to lead in an environment in which the candidates in the rest of the pack often seem indistinguishable. In today’s competitive business environment, when employees distinguish themselves from the predictable blandness, lack of courage, and lack of focus of their colleagues, they garner the respect and following of those around them. Maybe Sanders has something to teach in that regard. Do you agree?

Leadership lessons can come from both sides of the aisle. Read more in last week’s post about leadership takeaways from Donald Trump.