To be a successful leader – in business or politics – you have to care more about the people you lead than you care about leading.
There is little question that Mitt Romney is as qualified to be president – if not more so – than any of the other individuals seeking the Republican presidential nomination. As the son of a former Michigan governor who was also a cabinet officer and CEO of American Motors, Romney has a deep lineage for business and political leadership. Romney’s educational background, his record as a successful capitalist, governor of Massachusetts and director of the triumphant Winter Olympics in Utah provides him with a more varied background of experience than any of the other candidates. And, you have to admit, he “looks” presidential.
Romney has been actively running for president for at least seven years; making contacts, lining up support, collecting money and building a national organization. None of the other candidates can come within a shadow of matching the groundwork and resources that Romney has built and accumulated. The best comparison of Romney’s campaign power and resources with those of the other Republican candidates would be to contrast it with the army and resources of the British Empire, matched against the military power and resources of the United States at the time of the revolution. In this campaign Romney has spent more money than all of the other candidates combined by a five to one ratio.
Yet, despite all his qualifications, wealth, high-powered, well-financed campaign organization and the almost unanimous backing of the mainstream of the Republican Party, Romney remains mired in a battle to rise above the rest in order to assume the mantle of leadership. So, what’s the problem here?
Leadership is More Than Skin-Deep
The problem for Romney – one not likely for him to overcome – is not that he ran for the Senate as a liberal (more liberal than Ted Kennedy), not that he was elected governor of Massachusetts as a moderate or that he is now running for president as a conservative. Nor is the problem for Romney his immense wealth or the type of “destructive capitalism” he plied to accumulate it. The problem for Romney is not that he has, at one time or another, been on both sides of all critical issues. The problem for Romney is not that he pays taxes at a rate that is less than half of what most American’s pay. No, Romney’s problem comes from none of this: The problem for Romney is that he is simply not a natural leader.
Real leadership – of all types and at all levels – starts with a bedrock premise that the one seeking to lead can create a level of devotion among those he or she wants to lead. Romney has proven to be successful as an executive, but this, in and of itself, is not leadership. The executive has the authority to direct the actions of others; the leader has the ability to inspire the actions of others. People care about leaders who care about them. Romney may very well care about people, but his actions as a businessman, his non-scripted, off-the-cuff comments and even how he tries to appear “casual,” send a different message. Being able to connect with people is not something that can be calculated or scripted; it is something that people can sense and feel, and – fair or not – it is not a feeling people receive from Romney.
The challenge for Romney is exemplified in the comparison between his campaign and that of Rick Santorum. When compared with Romney, Santorum’s campaign resources and organization make him part of the “very poor.” Yet, Santorum has won more primaries than Romney—despite Romney’s prodigious campaign war chest. The only explanation the experts and media can offer for the seeming incongruity in Santorum’s success has been his ability “to communicate and relate to people.” And when people believe the leader sincerely cares about them, they will trust and follow the leader, no matter how long the odds may be or how difficult the situation.
Other Presidents have Proven the Importance of Trust in Leadership
A clinical analysis of George Washington’s ability as a battlefield general would not place him high in the pantheon of great generals. Despite losing virtually every battle in the Revolutionary War, being chased and harassed by a vastly superior British army, lacking even the most basic necessities like equipment, food, uniforms and funds to pay the troops, Washington was able to keep his “army” together and eventually defeat the British. The only advantage that Washington had as a leader was a sincere, almost visceral ability to relate to his followers and communicate that he cared. Despite the horrendous hardships Washington’s army had to endure – including death – his troops faithfully did so because they were convinced that, above all else, he cared about them. One has to wonder if Romney had been in Washington’s place if the outcome would have been the same.
It is imperative to understand that success as a leader – in business and politics – does not mean that one must be of the people, but it does require that the leader be for the people. Like Romney, Franklin Roosevelt came from a wealthy, even aristocratic family. As with Romney, he had been raised, educated and lived in the upper-crust of society. Like Romney, he had been governor of a large state (New York). One could easily argue that Roosevelt would be the least likely leader for a time when the vast majority of Americans were suffering severe economic hardships. And yet, Roosevelt had a quality of leadership that made him exactly the type of leader the country needed. Of course, that quality was his ability to relate to people and the skill to communicate that he cared about them.
With only his voice and words on the radio, Roosevelt had a gift that allowed him to communicate with people as if he were sitting beside them at their “fireside,” chatting about their problems; convincing them that – even with his background – he felt their pain, understood their fears for the future and would take actions to make things better for them. Roosevelt’s “gift” was his deep-seated concern for the plight of the people. Do you think people get that same type of feeling from Romney?
Romney approaches the problems of others from the perspective of a successful, experienced, logical businessman. (The same way Herbert Hoover had approached the Great Depression.) From an economic perspective, Romney might be correct when he says the way to solve the mortgage and foreclosure housing crisis is to “let the foreclosure process take its course, let the market hit bottom and the market move up from there.” But can you imagine Roosevelt saying something like that to depression-era constituents? Certainly sacrifice is needed in any crisis and followers will sacrifice anything for a leader, but only if they feel the leader cares about their sacrifice. It may seem unfair to criticize Romney for his organized, structured approach to leadership – after all that is his background and training – but those are the feelings and actions of a calculating manager, not a leader.
Another example of someone with a background similar to Romney is John Kennedy. Raised and educated in a wealthy, patrician lifestyle, Kennedy was able to “overcome” this background to become president. Even with the elitism of “Camelot,” Kennedy had the ability to communicate to people (especially women) that he cared. Can you imagine thousands of people turning out just to see, touch or feel the presence of Romney, as they did for Kennedy? Romney may be far better qualified to manage the government than was Kennedy, but Kennedy was clearly more qualified to lead the nation.
You can see the impact of Romney’s leadership problem in the way he conducts his campaign. It is organized, structured and safe. It boils down to a consistent, simple message, “Obama has failed and I will succeed.” There are no bold ideas and no specific plans beyond the normal campaign pablum. But most of all, there is a complete lack of that natural, visceral connection with “the people” that convinces them that he really cares about them. As a result, he offers no reason why they should care about him.
It is this deficiency in basic leadership skill that has prevented Romney from “closing the deal,” and has allowed the other candidates, who lack the qualifications, financing and organization of Romney to remain competitive in the race for the nomination. It is the reason why people have hung-back and continue to search (hope) for a leader who they believe cares about them.
And the Moral of the Story …
Leadership is the ability to cause others to care about following you, because they believe you care about them. If you want to be a successful leader – in business or politics – you have to care more about the people you lead than you care about leading.
It is one thing to obsess over achieving the mantle of leadership, but even if the position of leadership is attained, it will be a hallow victory – lacking the true power to lead – unless the leader has a genuine belief in and can effectively communicate care and concern for those he seeks to lead. Leadership – especially when times are murky and the future is uncertain – requires trust of the follower that the leader will do the right things at the right time and that trust is earned when those with the power to grant it believe the leader cares enough about them to do the right thing for them and their future.
This is a lesson that any of us at any level of leadership responsibility should understand, learn and practice. For the good of all of us and our country, let’s hope that if Romney becomes president, it is a lesson he, too, can learn.