Executive Careers Blog

What CEOs Can Learn From the President's Poor Debate Performance

Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

When Obama watched video of the debate, "he grimaced. 'It's worse than I thought' ran through his mind."

That was 2008. Obama had begun his run for president ("Game Change," John Heilemann, Mark Halperin).

Four years later, after his first , President Obama was probably thinking the same thing.

We might conclude:

1) Anyone—even the President of the U.S., even a masterful speaker—can have a bad night.

2) Lots of people will tell you, "anyone can have a bad night," especially when you've just had a really, really bad one.

3) Knowing that "anyone can have a bad night," does not make your night any better. Or your next day.

Still. When President Reagan lost his first debate against Walter Mondale in 1984, he looked tired and confused, noted the Wall Street Journal.

And "in 8 of the 10 election cycles since 1976, the polls moved against the incumbent" after the first debate (Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight, NY Times).

Why do U.S. Presidents often lose the first debate?

One reason: lack of practice. Romney had 19 debates on his way to the nomination; Obama, 0.

Practice does not make perfect. It only makes you better.

(Read More: The Debate’s Biggest Loser: The Wealthy)

We know Obama prepared for the Romney debate—but how well? "Hours before the debate . . . (his advisers) were nervous that he was underprepared" (NY Times).

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and his sparring partner, Senator Rob Portman, practiced relentlessly.

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Senator Portman had been playing Barack Obama in mock debates since 2008. That year, rehearsing with John McCain, Portman was so fierce that McCain's wife, Cindy, started crying.

"You have to be mean," Portman told CNN, "so the candidate you're helping is ready for the worst of it."

(Read More: How to Answer Those Way Too Personal Questions)

In 1984, after Reagan's weak first debate, he roared back in the next one.

And in 2008, after Obama grimaced, he resolved to "to get this right" ("Game Change").

Tip: Anyone can have a bad night—what matters is what you do the next day.

Forget perfect. Commit to continuous, never-ending improvement.

Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (www.expresspotential.com),  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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