There are a lot of reasons for the fall of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi, but it all comes down to a fundamental issue: Morsi’s failure to engender trust from followers across the political spectrum.
The monumental international news of the week – other than the intrigue of Edward Snowden hiding in a bathroom in the Moscow airport and the riveting – can’t look away – trial of George Zimmerman – was the Egyptian military’s ouster of the first democratically elected president of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi. This act will cause political reverberations in Egypt and across the world, especially the Mideast. Already the Obama administration, in an effort to avoid labeling the action a military coup d’état, looks like it is playing a giant, contorted Twister game. Soon bushels of books will dissect the crosscurrents of volatility in Egyptian politics. But in the end, there is one simple principle to learn from the fall of Morsi: Trust is the ultimate power for a leader and lack of trust is the ultimate weakness.
Trust is one of the most underrated aspects of leadership. There are far too many in positions of leadership who discount the necessity to build trust among followers; believing the power they have negates the need for trust. What they fail to understand is that trust creates power and the absence of trust destroys power.
Trust me, if Morsi had revered and validated the trust that the Egyptian people had placed in him in the election of just a year ago, there is no way the military could have taken the action it did to oust him, suspend the constitution and push back democratic rights, without triggering a violent revolt by the people.
The People Speak
In June 2012, Morsi won what was a surprisingly close presidential election. Despite running against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the hated and deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, Morsi received barely 51 percent of the vote. Long identified as the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, an organization dedicated to the implementation of strict Muslim Sharia law, Morsi promised the electorate that in exchange for their vote, he would distance himself from the Muslim Brotherhood and steer a moderate course of action that would respect the multi-cultural, poly-religious, secular culture that make up the majority in Egypt. And he promised to do so by implementing transparent, democratic systems and institutions.
It might be considered naïve to believe that Morsi would change, but the people trusted him, elected him and supported him as he reigned in the army and dismantled many of Mubarak’s oppressive institutions. But rather than continuing down the path of transparent democracy, Morsi began to support and install members of the minority Muslim Brotherhood in positions of power and control. Worse, perhaps, Morsi began to attack the very elements of democracy that enabled him to gain power.
Not to condone or justify the actions of the Egyptian military (which has a history of supporting repression) but soon after Morsi took office he began to squander the trust the people had placed in him. Seeking to increase his personal power – even to the point of issuing a decree declaring that he was above the law – and moving to install the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant and controlling political force in the country, Morsi turned his back on his only real source of power – the trust of the people – virtually inviting and leaving him vulnerable to the actions taken by the military. In an instant, Morsi went from power to prison; with only himself to blame.
A Lesson in Leadership
For those who seek to be leaders at any level, there is an important lesson to learn from the Morsi debacle. For a leader to enjoy the power of trust it boils down to the followers having faith in the leader’s consistency in purpose, words and actions. The secret to earning the trust of followers is being the same today as you were yesterday and will be tomorrow.
This does not mean that a leader has to be liked or that the followers will always agree with actions taken, but it does mean that the followers will respect the leader, because they can count on consistency at the core of the leader’s agenda. This is where Morsi made his mistake and ultimately contributed to his downfall.
Trust is a reservoir of goodwill that empowers a leader to take actions that may not be fully understood, but are accepted by the followers because past experience tells them their trust is justified. But when this trust is violated on the altar of the leader’s personal agenda or by consistent inconsistency, the power to lead quickly evaporates.
What Morsi and many other leaders fail to understand is that building trust is a process not a procedure. True deep-seated trust does not come overnight, it comes over time and it cannot be mandated. Followers are generally willing to give the leader the benefit of the doubt, but the pool of trust begins to drain away after the first time it is broken. The trust levels in an organization or society ultimately validate the simple old axiom, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
The leader begins the process of building trust by setting standards for the organization or group he seeks to lead. These standards must be clear, concise and rigorously followed – especially by the leader. The standards are really a set of inviolate principles upon which a leader promises to lead. It is the consistency of the leader in setting and implementing these standards that generates trust. And it is this trust that empowers the leader to lead.
The irony is that followers do not have to always agree with the standards to build trust. They only need to know what the standards are and that they will be consistently enforced at all times. This does not mean that the leader must be straightjacketed to inflexibility. On the contrary, trust provides the leader with the flexibility to determine how to do something, but never the flexibility about what to do. When those in position of leadership fail to comprehend the real workings of trust, they may walk like a leader but they will sooner, rather than later, find that they are as powerless.
And the Moral of the Story …
Those placed in the position of leadership should never discount the value of trust; and if they do, it is at their peril. Trust or the lack thereof can be a powerful force. When present, it can free the leader to accomplish great things; when it is missing, it can eat away at the authority of the leader until it paralyzes his efforts and soon, leaves him powerless.
The simple lesson to learn – one that Morsi did not – is that if you want to succeed as a true leader to do great things, you must begin by accumulating, respecting and retaining trust. In short, before one can be an empire builder, they must first become a trust builder.