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Republican debate: How Donald Trump and Ben Carson stood out

September 17, 2015, 3:41 PM UTC
Top-Polling GOP Candidates Participate In First Republican Presidential Debate
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 06: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker listens to Donald Trump in the first prime-time presidential debate. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Photograph by Chip Somodevilla — Getty Images

If you had just landed from Mars on Wednesday night, having never heard of the Republican candidates or seen a polling number—if all you had to go on was what you saw in the debate on CNN—whom would you have identified as the leaders?

You probably would have picked Donald Trump simply because of the attention all the others paid to him, plus the amount of talking he did, which was more than anyone else. Then you likely would have picked Carly Fiorina for her polished, presidential demeanor and command of policy issues. Jeb Bush, who also talked a lot, spoke well about policy, and pushed back effectively against Trump’s bluster.

But I suspect you never would have guessed Ben Carson, who was hesitant, uncertain, and practically invisible in the early going. He got warmed up and asserted himself better as the interminable evening wore on, but he alone refused to attack Trump even when presented with obvious opportunities. And yet in all the polls—in Iowa, New Hampshire, and nationwide—Carson is the only candidate ranking anywhere near Trump in popularity.

A conundrum of this race, and a lesson for leaders everywhere, is that the two most successful candidates so far are the loudest one and the quietest one. That fact tells us a few things:

There is no superior leadership style or any definable leadership personality. Style and personality are not what make a leader.

Authenticity always comes through. As different as Trump and Carson are, they’re both real, and voters can sense it. They can also tell instantly, and generally dismiss, who’s delivering rehearsed, focus-group-tested talking points.

Differentiation is key. Marketers will tell you that the most important factors in brand power are differentiation and relevance. Trump and Carson are in many ways at opposite ends of a spectrum, and much of their strength comes from being at the ends, not in the middle.

Other observations: Most of the commentary on Thursday morning has focused on Fiorina, and rightly so—she performed excellently and will certainly rise in the polls. It remains to be seen whether her record as CEO of Hewlett-Packard will become an issue. She and Trump sniped at each other over this until Chris Christie shut them down by calling their spat “childish” and irrelevant to the voters. He did Fiorina a favor by changing the subject because she was indeed a disastrous CEO. As she now gets more attention, we’ll see if anyone really cares.

Christie was hugely improved over the previous debate. But he still isn’t sufficiently differentiated.

Bush’s performance was once again a snooze until he went after Trump for bringing Bush’s wife into the debate. Then he became authentic and energized. A continuing problem is that he keeps talking about the importance of optimism, and it falls flat. He might heed some advice often given to writers: Don’t tell me, show me. That is, don’t talk about optimism. Be optimistic.

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