Bill Clinton’s Top 5 Leadership Messages

Great leaders, like Bill Clinton, are associated with memorable leadership messages.

This is no coincidence!

Vivid messages help position people as great leaders.

Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Steve Jobs, Anita Roddick, Steve Waugh, Richard Branson and Janine Allis are examples of this. This article focuses on Bill Clinton and his leadership messages.

Bill Clinton has decent leadership credentials. He served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001, yet since leaving office, President Clinton has been a relentless and forceful advocate for a number of causes such as the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, and the need to stem greenhouse gas emissions. Cam Barber and Bill Clinton cropped300

Through his Clinton Global Initiative, he has persuaded billionaires, heads of state, and others to declare and fund commitments to specific projects.

I was lucky enough to speak with Bill Clinton at the Global Business Forum back in February 2006. And I was struck by his ability to engage so many different people, including myself, in an interesting and relevant conversation. He was later introduced by the then Victorian Premier Steve Bracks AC as the “Greatest Communicator in the World”.

This is high praise and perhaps a matter of opinion, but there is no question that Bill Clinton’s success as a leader is typified by his great communication skills. Here are his top 5 leadership messages.


Leadership Message No. 5:

Bill Clinton mcirophone“The invention of the electric microphone changed forever the criteria for being a great speaker.”

This leadership message hints at the foundation for the ‘Clinton Charisma’. Bill Clinton said this to me in our conversation about the famous Al Gore 2000 election. After the election, Al Gore was praised for his speech accepting defeat (against George W. Bush) because he appeared ‘real’ for the first time in the election campaign.

But it came after the race was lost.

Commentators asked why Al Gore didn’t talk naturally during the campaign. Many have wondered if that single thing cost Gore the election.

Clinton said he thought Al Gore was a great speaker, but it “drove me nuts” watching him speak in a forced style through the 2000 election. He believed the electric microphone allowed anyone to be themselves instead of adopting an exaggerated performance.

You still need you leadership message, but you don’t have to put on a song and dance when you deliver it.

Be clear! But you can still be yourself.


Leadership Message No. 4:

Bill Clinton smile“Being president is like running a cemetery: you’ve got a lot of people under you and nobody’s listening.”

I like this because it typifies Bill Clinton’s sense of humour, and his ability to face the truth head on.

One thing we like about Bill Clinton is that he seems real.

As President, he was able to say the things we were thinking, and that made us feel like he understood us.

He has this extra special quality where we felt he was our friend, quite different to those leaders that come across as distant, aloof, robotic or dictatorial. With his sense of humour, we felt he was a person we could relate to.


Leadership Message No. 3:

Bill Clinton KFC“People skills don’t work if you’re trying too hard.”

This is a big lesson from Bill Clinton’s leadership style.

There are so many theories; personality styles strategies, manipulative negotiation techniques, etc. that we are exposed to as leaders. Some have valuable insights to offer, however, people can smell fake.

A manipulative technique might work two or three times, but the fourth person smells your technique and they never trust you again. Is that worth the risk?

When asked why he was so successful, Clinton said simply, “Two things; I have good powers of concentration, and the ability to gather information about issues to seek to understand them fully”.

Two relatively simple but vital drivers to his leadership success, founded on a humanistic approach rather than a mechanical, manipulative approach. So don’t try too hard – be natural!


Leadership Message No. 2:

Bill Clinton High 5Everybody has a story, and I am interested to learn their story.

Bill Clinton’s famous one-on-one charisma is driven by a single idea.

That everybody has a story.

And he is interested to find out yours. His natural questions pursue that story, which effortlessly drives the conversations he has with people.

Bill Clinton has a reputation for being amazingly charming. In my case, while I was eager to speak with him, at end of the day isn’t he just a (lying) politician? But after just four minutes, I felt like he was my friend! It’s true what they say about the Clinton charisma.  My experience was that you felt he cared about you. And I was expecting the opposite.

This one driving idea (what’s your unique story?) can give you the direction and tools to have a conversation with anyone, at anytime, that is engaging. Ask just one question to get started, and depending on what the other person says, you can adapt because you have a curiosity to find out more.

Unlike following a script, each question flows onto the next because the single goal is to “learn their story”. It helps Bill Clinton to exude a natural charisma and genuineness that is rare.


Leadership Message No. 1:

Bill Clinton Time magazine“Politics may be messy, but I’ve always seen politics as an alternative to violence.”

Growing up in the ‘60s and being part of anti-Vietnam War campaigning while at university, Bill Clinton was keenly aware of war and violence.

Before I met him, I must admit feeling cynical about meeting “just another politician”. Because politicians, by nature, have to lie to get things done, and do complicated backroom deals to get their legislation through.

This leadership message changed my perspective all together.

Because great leadership messages change the way you think! (See Steve Jobs’ messaging during the Antennagate iPhone4 crisis). This message dissolved the distaste I had about speaking to a “lying politician” because he made a good point!

What would we prefer? Pull out the guns and start shooting, or try to broker a political deal?

Even with all the dirty background deals involved in politics…

It would be great if we could teach our children to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons.

If you’d like to develop persuasive communication skills, consider:

Want to be a great speaker? Get the kindle ebook from What’s Your Message? Public Speaking with Twice the Impact, Using Half the Effort


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