Lately, everyone I know is down in the dumps. (And not just because upset stomachs are a symptom of the latest coronavirus variant.) The holidays are behind us. Punxsutawney Phil is saying weeks of winter are still ahead. And then there’s the pandemic.
For two years, we slogged along dutifully. Those of us who could stayed home, socially distanced, and tried to stop the spread. We got masks; we got vaxxed; we got boosted. We upended our lives for the good of our country—and for the promise of a better, safer, healthier future when this was all over.
By all metrics, that future is here now. Well, maybe it’s just around the corner. But we’re so close to the finish line!
It doesn’t feel like it, though. On the ground, the sentiment is less “We’re up by 20 with just 30 seconds left!” and more “Is this game still going on? Is anyone even keeping score? Is there something better playing on another channel?” And in my view, this malaise is coming straight from the top—the top of our companies, but also the top of our country—and trickling down to the rest of us. No wonder President Biden’s approval ratings are in free fall.
Now, I’m neither a doctor nor a public-health professional. I’m not an economist—macro, micro, or whatever’s in between. And I’m definitely no politician. So I wouldn’t dare try to lecture the leader of the Free World on 99.9 percent of his job. But, in one respect, I am qualified to give advice: from 1964 to 1967, I was captain of my high-school cheerleading squad.
And if you think about it, cheerleaders and presidents actually have a lot in common—so much so that a number of U.S. presidents were once cheerleaders themselves (F.D.R., Eisenhower, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush). It’s not only because we each believe we have the most important job in the world. It’s because the traits, techniques, and tactics that make good cheerleaders can make strong presidents. Usually, they make good leaders—period.
But, in one respect, I am qualified to give advice: from 1964 to 1967, I was captain of my high-school cheerleading squad.
So perhaps it’s time for all the people in charge in this country—from the corner office to the Oval Office—to add a little metaphorical pep to their step. Perhaps it’s time for our leaders to start acting like cheerleaders.
Here are some tips, courtesy of my time on the field:
Optimism is a verb
A cheerleader’s job is to keep everyone—the team, the crowd, the community—hopeful that victory is within reach. That’s what the leaders of companies and countries must do, too.
You can’t control the game—but you’re not powerless
No one blames a cheerleader when the quarterback gets sacked. And no one should blame presidents or executives for the once-in-a-century pandemic they’ve inherited. But reactions matter.
There are no time-outs
If the team is huddled in the locker room, or the game goes into overtime, cheerleaders don’t get a break. The best ones manage to keep people motivated and energized while suppressing negativity, even when they’re exhausted. The same is true of leaders off the field.
Without a solid base of support, you’re screwed
To pull off the impossible—a perfect pyramid and a flyer that lands the stunt—cheerleaders need confidence in every level of the foundation supporting them. And that’s the case whether that team is cheering, governing, or doing whatever else.
If you do a 180, you’ll fall on your face
For cheerleaders, this is literal. For all other leaders, it may as well be. If you change your mind too many times, people will stop trusting you to stick the landing—and stop taking anything you say at face value.
With great megaphones comes great responsibility
For both cheerleaders and presidents, the buck stops at the top. And head cheerleaders, like presidents and executives, get their voices amplified. Their messages reverberate. What they say matters.
Staying on message is key
There’s a reason cheers are so catchy—they’re short, clear, direct, inspiring, and easy to follow and repeat. That’s something all leaders should remember when putting out guidelines and regulations for their teams and people.
The clock is always running. And it eventually runs out
Neither cheerleaders nor presidents get do-overs if they mess up.
For a million reasons, this is a hard time to be in charge—of a company, of a community, of a country. And the president likely has the hardest job of all.
I’m not saying he should complicate it with pom-poms or a uniform. (Although his team does already have colors—red, white, and blue—and an easy-to-remember three-letter chant: “U.S.A.”) At the end of the day, though, all leaders, including President Biden, are doomed to fail without two things: good cheer and good leadership.
So, during the Super Bowl tomorrow, as our country spends a day setting aside differences, coming together, and reveling in the most American of sports, I hope the president—along with all the other presidents, C.E.O.’s, and executives—tunes in. But I hope they don’t just follow the game on the field. I hope they take some cues from the cheerleaders on the sidelines, too.
Bonnie Hammer is vice-cbairman of NBCUniversal and a former captain of the Kew-Forest School cheerleading squad, in Queens, New York