Presence and Use of Self: Hillary Clinton's Campaign Challenges

We convince by our presence.Walt Whitman

My core work as a teacher, writer, presenter, and executive coach is to guide people into their authentic, embodied, and inspiring selves, and to strengthen their ability to access those gifts of presence in moments of choice. It is always a challenge, as people are often blind to both their strengths and their developmental edges, which are revealed or not. People develop habitual ways of presenting themselves and may not realize when they are out of alignment with their gifts and fundamental values. They may not realize that the way they are choosing to interact with others—that is, the way they choose to use their self as an instrument—does not create the impact they desire.

These concepts of presence and use of self as instrument are relevant to Hillary Clinton’s campaign for US President in order to understand why her ratings are now plummeting, despite an initial impressive lead. Each time she has debated Bernie Sanders, we see his ratings increase and hers falter. According to recent national polls, Hillary has a current approval rating of 39%, an unfavorable rating of 56%, and a net negative approval rating of -17. In a recent MSNBC debate, Hillary and Bernie talked about minds versus hearts. While Hillary has been delivering logical arguments about her capacity to be task-focused and results-oriented, Bernie has been capturing the hearts of the Democratic voters. It’s moving to hear the passionate support for Hillary from feminist icons like Gloria Steinem or Madeline Albright, but it’s worrisome that they are so concerned about Hillary’s polling decline that they have resorted to shaming women into voting for her.

As an executive coach, and a woman, I’m strangely saddened by what I see happening to Hillary. If I were her, I’d be  asking for help, and hoping to find the “right” people who could give me good data, good feedback, and wise counsel. Her advisors know that she has both a likability problem and an “authenticity problem.” What can Hillary do about this?

The idea of presence, which is core to Gestalt-based practice, has been receiving a lot of attention in leadership development and relational studies, and rightly so. Leaders need to understand their presence, which includes not only their embodied strengths and wisdoms but also their weaknesses and limitations. Leaders must understand that their presence can be leveraged through intentional use of self in order to arouse interest in and have impact on others. Hillary needs to review her presence and use of self in this campaign. There are experts in this area, whose focus is on leadership coaching, to support her.

The somatic and verbal cues of one’s presence influence what gets evoked and provoked in others. Physical appearance and stance are immediately visible, but other factors of presence matter. Hillary’s vocal delivery, for example, is often monotonous and emotionally flat. When she wishes to convey a strong emotion, the timbre and pitch of her voice become thinner and harsher. She needs a speech coach—much as the late Margaret Thatcher (an amazing leader) needed a speech coach before she could capture public interest and resonance. This is not about the tricks of being a “professional speaker.” Instead, this is about conveying passion and conviction, even if it’s the 200th time one has said it. Rather than sounding like she’s reading an excerpt from a financial audit statement, Hillary needs to evoke inspiration and provoke commitment. She needs to speak with more breath . . . and with more “heart.” How does one speak with more heart? In part, that’s the work of a good speech coach.

Hillary has been in the public eye for over 20 years, which means she’s carrying a great deal of historical baggage. How might she incorporate and use her history—with humor, with grace, with humility—as an evocative conduit of personal truth and inspiration? As Secretary of State, she effectively confronted and refuted allegations of incompetence or misconduct from a calm, determined, and informed stance of leadership. Now, she needs to be even more “present” in everything she does and says. David Axelrod, chief political advisor to President Obama, observed that Hillary does not like to open up personally. Yet this campaign will be decided by those who can, in the moment, speak about how their darkest moments and their failures powerfully shaped them to become a wiser, better leader.

The newest voters are the “Millennials,” those born after 1980, who have reached social and political maturity. This generation does not easily tolerate any scent of inauthenticity or political manipulation, and gaining their trust and commitment is a challenge. Hillary seems to be losing their vote by significant numbers. She would do well to heed the philosopher Martin Buber’s seminal concept, distinguishing between a relational stance of “I and Thou” and “I and It.” Hillary tends to address Millennial voters as an “it,” a demographic statistic (or worse, as one late night host put it, she responds to Millennials like "a disappointed mother”). When a 22 year old provocatively asked her in a town meeting, “Hillary, why don’t we trust you?,” she responded evenly, but with a seemingly meaningless smile and no substantive answer. Hillary needed to use that moment to respond more intimately, conceding the painful implications, both personal and political, of the question. She needed to say something along the lines of: “I hear your disappointment in me. I am sorry to know that you and your friends do not trust me. I need to meet more often with you so that I can let you know how I am trustworthy.” The inability to present oneself—and to use one’s self—in a way that evokes authenticity and gains the trust of others is debilitating to any leader. Emotional intelligence as a leader is about using one's failures in a way that can inspire others.

Lastly, there is the issue of “attunement” to what is happening in the larger context or field. Sensitivity to context is a crucial aspect of presence and use of self. Political analyses suggest that Americans are fearful at the moment of many economic, socio-cultural, and political trends. Anything that appears to indicate America is losing its world status is distressing. Anything that looks like it enables or feeds domestic terrorism, this post-9-11 induced paranoia, is terrifying. Leaders must assure us both of their attunement to the global field, where shifts and changes are always occurring, while also assuring us of our own safety. Primal fears that diminish humanity—racism, homophobia, xenophobia—need to be openly but astutely addressed. More than ever, leadership of America has to earned, from Millennials to Baby Boomers. No candidate deserves the nomination who does not speak from core convictions, values, and wisdom that allay collective fears and inspire optimism; or whose presence, in the moment and over time, cannot move us to trust in and to commit to something greater than self-preservation or self-interest.

Hillary needs to demonstrate, through a commanding and compelling presence, and through intentional and strategic use of that presence, that she is not part of the political status quo who would resist change—that she is grounded, centered, authentic, and trustworthy, and that she is attuned to the larger field that is calling for change. She needs to be both evocative and provocative, but to do that she needs to “own” her presence: stay aligned with her core values and convictions, draw wisdom from her experience and learning, and acknowledge her learning edges. The wonderful American poet, Walt Whitman, said, “We convince by our presence.” At the moment, Hillary’s presence fails to convince because it’s aligned with the status quo. Her husband’s presence in the campaign distorts the distinctness and clarity of her own presence, and he should step back. If he was the “Come Back Kid,” Hillary can certainly be the “Come Back Queen” of this election if she can present herself and use her presence to evoke trust and inspire commitment . . . and if she herself trusts that she can do it. I want to tell Hillary, “It’s your time—and there are many excellent people who can be a committee of ‘presence coaches’ to assist you if you choose to use coaching as a vehicle to move you toward your goal of becoming President.”

Dear Cyber Community: Who would you recommend to be on Hillary's coaching committee to guide her into her authentic, inspiring presence and support her strategic use of self?