The Promise of Leadership is Easy – The Hard Part is the Delivery

Failure to Deliver on Promises is a Surefire Formula for a Failure of Leadership

Watching the machinations of the newly empowered Republicans of the 112th Congress offers a revealing example of how easy it is to promise leadership and how difficult it is to deliver.

In a successful effort to gain control of the House of Representatives, Republicans made scores of promises to the electorate. Chief among those promises were an immediate $100 billion reduction in spending, repeal of the Obama health care plan, elimination of earmarks, no increase in the national debt limit and complete transparency in the legislative process. Also thrown into the mix were promises to read the entire constitution at the start of each Congressional session, constitutional clearances of all proposed legislation, and elimination of the influence of high-powered, money-showering special interest groups.

A “Promising” Start but a Predictable Outcome

No sooner had the 112th been sworn in when the Republicans began to backtrack on each and every one of these promises.

New House Speaker John Boehner was forced to admit that it would be impossible to reduce spending by any amount even close to $100 billion. While the House is scheduled to vote on the repeal of the Obama health care legislation, the Republicans know that this is nothing more than a pretense. They – like everyone else – know that there is zero chance that such legislation would be passed by the Senate and signed by the president. Yet they take this action based on a hope that the electorate will not see through this charade and believe it to be a delivered promise.

The Republicans did try – unsuccessfully – to have all their members of Congress sign a “no earmark pledge,” but even some of those who signed the pledge continued to add earmarks to bills they supported. Many Republicans have virtually sworn an oath not to vote for an increase in the national debt limit. (The increase in the debt limit upwards from $14.3 trillion will be required no later than March.) Despite the promise not to vote for the debt limit increase, the Republican leaders have promised not to “shut the government down.” These two positions are irreconcilable. The increase in the existing national debt level is driven by promises (good or bad) that have been made previously. The existing debt has nothing to do with reducing current or future spending. Unless the debt limits are increased, there will be no choice but to shut down the entire government, because there will be no funds or authority to pay for existing promises.

As for the Republican promise to be immune to the powerful, special-interest and money groups of Washington; not two days after Congress convened, 24 newly-minted Tea Party-backed Republican Congressmen held a highly visible fundraiser. Invited were all the top special interest and money groups in Washington at a price of $2,500 per ticket and $50,000 a table. Joe the Plumber needn’t apply.

Nobody is Immune from Making Extravagant Promises

The intent here is not to embarrass the Republicans. After all, the Democrats and President Obama are just as skilled at this promise shell game as the Republicans. Obama promised that his first act as President would be to close Guantanamo and two years later it is still open. Nor is the intent here to impugn the honest desire of these politicians to deliver on these promises. But real leaders understand that sometimes there are promises that simply cannot be delivered and should never be made. The problem is that the electorate will remember (and be reminded) of these promises and the result will be a continuing loss of confidence and credibility in our political leadership. And  it can’t get much worse. One recent poll showed that 40 percent of respondents believed people randomly picked from the phone book would perform better than the current Congress.

This political over-promising is not going to change, but there is a lesson to be learned. The lesson here is a basic one that can be applied at any level of leadership – in business or public life.

All successful leaders know and follow two simple precepts of leadership:

  1. Be consistent in all you say and do
  2. Never promise more than you can deliver and deliver more than you promise.

Nothing destroys the credibility and power of a leader more quickly than for actions that are inconsistent with words and to make a promise that cannot be delivered. And in the words of poet and writer Robert W. Service, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” Treat it as such.

George Washington is considered preeminent as an American political and military leader, but did you know that he lost virtually every battle he fought against the British during the Revolution? Washington’s army spent more time retreating and hiding than advancing. And yet he emerged from the Revolution as a sanctified leader. Why? Washington did not promise the Continental Congress that he would defeat the British army in battle. Rather, he promised only to maintain the army as a viable force that would keep the British occupied and tied down till they tired of the war and quit. The truth is the British won the battles of the Revolution, but lost the war.

Even as the British occupied Boston, routed Washington’s army from New York and drove the Continental Congress out of Philadelphia, Washington remained consistent in what he said and the actions he took. While there were calls to replace Washington as commander of American forces, he remained steadfast. He recognized the strength of his enemy and understood the capabilities of his resources and most importantly, never promised more than he knew he could deliver and ended up delivering more than he promised. And as they say, the rest is history.

On a more mundane note, but one that proves the basic principles of effective leadership, there may be those who recall that when Tim Brewster was named head football coach at Minnesota in 2006, in his first press conference he promised the fans of the Golden Gophers that the team would be playing for the Rose Bowl. Then in his first year the team won one game and lost 11. Sure, everyone in Minnesota loved the idea of going to the Rose Bowl, but it was not expected. Most fans just wanted to see the team get better and be competitive. Brewster promised more than he could deliver and immediately lost credibility with the fans and players and his leadership authority never recovered.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you seek long-term success as a leader it is important to understand the environment in which you seek to lead and the resources you have at hand so you can accurately predict the likelihood of a promising result. Then work as hard as you can to deliver more than you promise.

As the politicians have amply shown, it is tempting and seductive to make promises – any promises – in order to achieve short-term goals, i.e. be elected, but real leaders – successful leaders – never raise expectations by making promising more than they can deliver and always deliver more than expected.

It is a good lesson to learn for all who seek to be real leaders.

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