A tale of two announcements: Candidate Hillary Clinton today vs. in 2007
Hillary Clinton’s announcement on Sunday that she will seek the presidency for a second time centered on helping the middle class prosper and described herself as their “champion.” The theme and characterization are the same when she announced her first run for president 8 years ago. But beyond that, there are significant differences. Hillary today is a better communicator with a better message, in a better environment, although there’s room for improvement in a couple of areas.
Clinton has always had good executive presence — certainly since I interviewed her in the 1990s and saw her on her listening tour before her run for the U.S. Senate in 2000. After viewing dozens of tapes of her over the past decade, it has improved. Executive presence is essential for leaders — what is it? It’s that special mix of gravitas; how you come across; how you communicate; how you speak and appear; how you look.
We look at three measures of executive presence, and how Clinton stacks up on each today versus her last run for the White House in 2008.
Studies show gravitas is the most important ingredient for any leader. It involves the appearance of having confidence — key to winning others’ confidence. Gravitas also involves the ability to show “grace under fire.” The latter has been more of a problem for Clinton. In her first run for the White House, she appeared confident but edgier than today, more desperate to have the final word. When battered with questions on her record (for instance, her 2008 interview with journalist Tim Russert) she often interrupted and appeared aggressive and angry. Back then she no doubt had people cautioning her to lighten up and laugh more. So she often came out with a loud laugh dubbed a cackle by detractors that seemed misplaced and inauthentic.
Reacting poorly to reporters’ tough, prolonged questioning is hardly peculiar to Clinton. Witness Rand Paul’s recent tirade at a couple of female reporters, even shushing one mid question. But like it or not, it can affect one’s like-ability factor, especially for women. On this score, Clinton has improved over the years. When challenged over her emails recently she looked irritated like she shouldn’t have to answer. She has to watch that. If there is a chorus wanting an answer she has to respect that. Still, she waited for questions to be asked, and calmly, firmly responded, with occasional smiles but no guffaws.
Communication is the second most important quality in executive presence. It involves connecting to people with what you say and how you say it. Hilary’s message in 2008 was focused on strength and fitness. Close advisers later acknowledged she should have done more to connect emotionally. There is no doubt she will try to do that this time, and it should be easier for several reasons.
First, she has less to prove and more muted enemies. Having been U.S. Secretary of State is huge and most agree she did a fine job on the world stage. Secondly, as she is more confident, she is more relaxed and has become more spontaneous. At a recent interview at Google headquarters, she noticed someone fall ill in the back, and she noted it on stage trying to ensure the person got help. Unscripted kindness is worth dozens of handshakes.
And finally, there is Charlotte, her granddaughter. In 2008, Hillary rarely mentioned motherhood or family. The New York Times recently reported Hillary had hired a new coach to get her beyond how Obama characterized her in 2008 , “just likable enough.” Critics now expect to see and hear a grandmother’s perspective and the importance of shaping the future for generations to come.
Appearance is a small but important part of executive presence and this is an area where Clinton has an edge over her first run. Comparing anyone from almost a decade earlier will yield softer facial lines, and a more rounded figure. While unwelcome for most of us baby boomers, it could be a boon to Hillary who is looking to literally soften her image. Who knows what a new value placed on a few gray hairs on a woman will do for all of us.
Executive communications coach Mary Civiello is president of Civiello Communications Group. She works with leaders at some of the world’s largest businesses and not-for-profit organizations, as well as high-profile startups. She is also author of Communication Counts: Business Presentations for Busy People.