Hendren vs. Hendren (not Schumer): A Case Study in Leadership Communication

Last week, Arkansas State Senator (and Republican hopeful Senate candidate) Kim Hendren gave us a workshop in how to take a communication gaff and make it worse- much worse.  In case you missed the series of comments that went from bad to worse to appalling, the full exchange is reported in this article from the NY Daily News.  In short, Hendren said something he should not have but did the real damage based on an inability to stop justifying himself.

Before you start to flame this post from a political viewpoint, keep in mind that my observations not about his politics, or those of anyone who took him to task.  This is about what happens when a leader cannot be clear, honest and forthright.  This unfortunate incident gives us a way to decompose a very public meltdown and try to understand what happened.  More importantly, we can try to understand how NOT to fall into the same trap.

Lesson One:  Speaking in anger (or even when agitated) is a high risk proposition.

The dust up began when Hendren referred to NY Senator Chuck Schummer as “that Jew” as part of a heated meeting of the Pulaski County GOP.  All of my search for video came up blank for the actual event, but by all accounts, Hendren was in high dudgeon about remarks made by Schummer about the GOP and allowed his irritation to drive his rhetoric.  So, this is an issue that might have been defanged from the beginning.

Turns out that our mothers were right.  Speaking in anger is generally not a good idea.  All the more true when there are microphones present- but any politician who does not know that is in the wrong business to begin with.  Skilled leaders understand the importance of managing anger or even agitation before speaking.  Using anger or passion

Lesson two: If you are going to apologize, then apologize.  Justification, reframing and excuses are not an apology.

When he was taken-to-task about the statement by an Arkansas blogger, Hendren endeavored to apologize.  Unfortunately, his attempt only made matters worse.  An apology made with conditions, explanations, justification and reserve is not an apology.  Hendron’s effort managed to include them all.  The press, the bologsphere (conservative and liberal alike) and the public fed on this further communication snafu like a steak dinner.  The comments that drew the most fire had to do with his justification that there are Jews he admires, especially Jesus; and, that he was just “…attempting to explain that unlike Senator Schumer, I believe in traditional values, like we used to see on The Andy Griffith Show.”

And if you are going to apologize, apologize for the right thing.  In another comment, Hendren says “I made the mistake of referring to Sen. Schumer as ‘that Jew’ and I should not have put it that way, as this took away from what I was trying to say.” So, the problem, in Hendren’s view, is not that he should not have brought Schumer’s faith into the argument, but that he distracted listeners from his actual point.

Lesson three: Knowing our shortcomings provides a strategy, not an excuse.

Hendren explains this entire drama by saying, “I don’t use a teleprompter, and occasionally I put my foot in my mouth.”  Fair enough.  Good on him for knowing he has that shortcoming.  But effective leaders understand their own growth opportunities for the purpose of betting better rather than as an excuse.  If Hendren knows he has a habit of saying what he does not intend to say (at least in hindsight) perhaps use of a teleprompter might be useful.  In this case however, he seems to think it is an excuse.

Lesson Four:  Our true feelings will make themselves known

Regardless of where I come down on the content of his remarks, I would be very concerned about a leader who is so completely unaware of the consequences of his words. The commonality in all of these gaffs is that Hendren spoke his mind (and probably heart) in the way he communicated both originally and in the apology.  The original statement was telling, but a simple, straightforward apology would most likely have ended the matter.  Instead, Hendren continued to show the world that he did not feel apologetic, could not see the issue outside his personal frame of reference and was only concerned that his point was diluted.

The Ultimate Irony

The rhetoric online has also been rife with examples of laying blame, finger pointing and vitriol from those on both sides of the debate.  Ironically, Hendren’s best lesson on this could be that of Schumer himself who simply said “Apology accepted.” avoiding the kinds of land mines that Hendren appears to have been almost purposefully seeking.