Sometimes the best way a leader can learn how to do the right things is to observe the wrong things done by leaders who failed to do the right things.
It may not be fair to treat Romney like a dog and tie him to the top of the car as we drive off on our road trip to the future, but there is a lot to be learned about leadership from the way he conducted his campaign and his reaction to the loss.
By any objective measure, there is no way that Romney should have lost his bid to become president. Obama had entered the White House in a field of blossoming hope and change, but by election time 2012, the bloom was clearly off the rose. Those who had put the most faith in Obama – the middle class and the poor – had lost the most on his watch. For many, the enthusiasm of hope had changed to the apathy of despair. As the election process began, the confidence level of people and their belief that the country was moving in the right direction were at their lowest level in 46 years.
And on the other side of the coin (waaay on the other side) the richest 1 percent in the country had been given license by the Supreme Court to spend as much as their little hearts and big wallets desired to defeat Obama. It was not of his doing, but after four years of suffering through the most depressing economic conditions in the lives of virtually every living American, all Obama could claim credit for was emergency room treatment to stop the bleeding; the patient was stable but barely showing progress. No president had ever been re-elected with the combination of low approval ratings and high unemployment numbers that dismally defined Obama’s performance.
And that is not the half of it. Under Obama the government was running up deficit spending totals exceeding $1 trillion per year and the national debt had bloated to 100 percent of the total of the nation’s goods and services produced; the highest level since the Great Depression. All the while, the country was careering pell-mell toward a financial cliff of punitive tax increases for all Americans and draconian cuts in government spending; which everyone predicted would send the country into another economic death spiral. (In fairness to Obama, the Republicans were of no help when it came to resolving these problems. Early on in the Obama presidency the Republicans announced their first – and basically only – priority was to do all and anything they could to make sure he would be a one-term president.)
To top it off, Mitt Romney was, by his experience, temperament and background, the perfect candidate to tackle and solve the challenges – especially economic – facing the nation. Not only did Romney look like a central casting candidate for president, he had grown up in a politically active and successful business family, attended the right schools and had served as Republican governor in a contentious Democrat controlled state. He had – virtually singlehandedly – turned a potential debacle at the Utah Winter Olympics into a personal, professional, and political triumph. And there was even more: Romney served up an impressive PowerPoint presentation as an entrepreneur and CEO who had started and grown a company that returned hundreds of millions in profits to himself and his investors.
Surely the problems and failings of Obama, the dissatisfaction of the electorate and the experiences of Romney would coalesce into a perfect electoral storm that would sweep Romney into the Oval Office.
But that did not happen. The election was for Romney to lose – and he did.
Unfathomably, Romney was able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Given all that had happened or failed to happen during Obama’s first term, it is hard to believe that the people would see Romney as a worse alternative to Obama, but they did.
What can explain this seeming incongruity between the state of affairs in the country and Romney’s loss?
For all of Romney’s experience, talent, potential, money and the opportunity to win what should have been an easy victory, he was only successful at convincing the majority of people that he was not a leader who could be trusted to care about or do what is best for them.
When it comes to real leadership, success is not based on power, position or promises, but on the ability of the would-be leader to build and receive the trust of those they seek to lead. Romney misunderstood the one critical requirement for anyone who wanted to be president; the election was not about who would be the best CEO of the nation, but who would be the best leader for the people. Romney had experience and standout success in business, but he failed to understood that while the title of CEO may bestow power, when it comes to leadership, the title itself does not confer the trust of the followers; that must be earned. Trust in the connotation of leadership means that the followers have confidence in the intentions, desires and actions of the leader to care about and support their ultimate welfare.
In the presidential campaign of 2012 the pollsters consistently identified four issues the voters indicated they were most concerned about: the economy, taxes, debt and deficits, and jobs. On any and all of these issues, Romney had a bridge to the White House, but it turned out to be a bridge to nowhere. What the pundits – and especially Romney – paid little heed to was that in every poll, Obama was always rated well ahead of Romney when it came the question: Who do you trust the most? What the experts – and Romney – did not see coming was that in the end, people would put aside their concerns for the economy, taxes, national debt and even jobs to vote for the individual they trusted most to be concerned about them.
During the course of the campaign, Romney’s demeanor, words and actions created, and then reinforced, the suspicion of people that while he may have been a great CEO, he was not a leader that people could trust to care about them. And by the petty way that Romney has reacted to his loss by suggesting that it was not his fault, but was due to the bribery of Obama who offered “gifts” to the electorate, it shows that he still does not get it.
If You Seek Success as a Leader, Learn the Lesson Romney Failed to Learn:
No matter how experienced, talented or the nature of your title – unless you genuinely believe and act in ways that show your care about the welfare of those you want to lead, you will fail.
As Romney learned (or should have), when it comes to successful leadership, trust trumps all. Trust gives a leader the power to set the objective, make decisions that may be questioned but always followed and even change direction when needed. Without trust, none of this is possible. To be successful as a leader you must first and foremost make sure your leadership can be trusted. People will follow a trusted leader to hell, but when the people lack trust in the leader they will tell him to go there.
And the Moral of the Story …
There are many who believe that power and position translates into leadership. For example, companies like to identify the highest-ranking managers as the “leadership group.” They do this because of the belief that if you have power, you are ipso facto a leader. But in truth, it is leadership that creates power and position—not the other way around. And leadership is bestowed by trust, not power and position.
If you believe that leadership is determined more by power and position than trust, then ask yourself: How much power and position did Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa have? These leaders had only one thing – the trust of those they wanted to lead – and this trust gave them power to do great things.
We may never lead the world, but if we want to lead the way in our world, we will first understand the power of trust granted by those we want to lead. We will recognize that no matter what title has been given or power bestowed, we will only be successful as a leader when our beliefs, words and actions demonstrate to those we seek to lead that we can be trusted to care about them, more than we care about power and position.
You can come up with all the sophisticated analysis of the results or complain about the “gifts” granted to “buy” votes, but all of that is irrelevant. Mitt Romney, the well- connected, experienced, successful CEO, failed to understand the most fundamental element of leadership – trust – and for that, lost the election he should have won.