Lauren O'Brien, '20

March 20, 2020
Student explores communication in political leadership through honors thesis, study-abroad

Standing shoulder to shoulder with hundreds at a Beto O’Rourke campaign rally in Henrico County, Va., last April, Lauren O’Brien, ’20, observed with keen interest the reactions of the crowd to the charismatic politician.

“I was blown away by how people were treating O’Rourke as almost godlike,” O’Brien said. “They were crying and cheering. It was interesting to see how they were so wrapped up with someone they had never met and didn’t actually know.

“I wondered, what is going on here? Why are some political leaders able to connect with their followers on such a deep level and others are not?”

A leadership studies major from New Jersey, O’Brien said she became interested in this question in two classes taught by Dr. Al Goethals: Theories and Models of Leadership and Presidential Leadership. She decided to look for answers by undertaking a senior honors thesis—“The Power of Public Communication in the American Presidency”—with Goethals as her faculty mentor.

“I conducted an in-person study with 93 University of Richmond students to try to determine what people are responding to when they listen to a politician speak,” O’Brien said. “Are they analyzing data, or are they paying attention to how the leader looks, his tone of voice, and his body language?”

O’Brien asked study participants to watch, listen to, or read the opening statements made by John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in their now-famous first debate in 1960. Unlike much of the previous research done on this debate—which indicated that people who watched were more likely to say Kennedy won and people who listened were more likely to say Nixon won—O’Brien’s  research centered not on who won the debate but on how people processed information.

“I detected huge differences between people who watched the debate and those who listened,” O’Brien said. “People who listened processed the information best.

“My research indicates that what you say is not as important as how you say it—how you look and whether you speak with confidence. You just need to look and sound the part, and people will buy into it.”

This has implications for both leaders and followers. Her research raised her awareness of implicit biases, she said. Thanks to her Leadership Ethics class with Dr. Jessica Flanigan, she said she now takes a more analytical approach to political debates.

“That class heightened my ability to digest and break down a speech,” she said.

Her study-abroad semester at the University of Edinburgh in fall 2018 also affected how she views politics, O’Brien said. While there, she worked as a parliamentary programme graduate for a female member of the Scottish Parliament.

“In the United States, I’ve seen people get into politics for selfish reasons and make decisions based on their electability,” she said. “In Scotland, people are willing to take political risks to support their constituencies. They take a servant leader approach to politics.”

Drawing on her honors research, classes, and study-abroad experience, she has formed her own conclusions about what she values in presidential leadership, O’Brien said: “Intent is the most important thing for a president. Are you running for president because you want to be in the history books or because you want to create a better country?”

Photo: Lauren O’Brien poses with Beto O’Rourke at a campaign rally in Henrico County, Va., last April.