Trust is the petri dish for success, but inconsistency is a virus that can infect and immobilize leadership.
As 2013 wound down, President Obama was pressing to conclude a troop-withdrawal agreement with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. The agreement – a pact that took over a year to negotiate – had actually been sought by Karzai to assure that at least a few American security troops would remain in Afghanistan after 2014. The negotiations, often as byzantine as New Jersey politics, finally came to a conclusion in November and the agreement was subsequently approved by the Afghanistan parliament. But then Karzai began to ask for more concessions and refused to sign the very agreement he had proposed and negotiated. A frustrated Obama replied by telling Karzai that if he didn’t sign the agreement by the end of the year then all bets were off. He warned Karzai that he would pull out all American troops and suggested he could go fly a kite.
Then on Christmas Eve, The New York Times ran a story under the headline “U.S. Softens Deadline for Deal to Keep Troops in Afghanistan.” The gist of the story was that Karzai was thumbing his nose at Obama’s threat, because he had learned that he could. The Times article pointed out, “Instead of prompting Mr. Karzai to action, however, setting a boundary appears to have only reinforced his sense that American officials will back down if he refuses their demands – a lesson that has been repeated often over the past 12 years.” Of course, the end of the year has come and gone along with Obama’s threat, and he’s still pleading with Karzai to sign the agreement.
The Fatal Flaw of Leadership
This story is emblematic of the problems President Obama has been confronted with because of a flaw in his basic leadership style and skills. President Obama has the ability to garner the trust of followers, but he lacks the consistency of action that converts trust into effective leadership. Trust is the petri dish for leadership success, but inconsistency is a virus that can infect and immobilize the power to lead. A leader who does not exhibit the consistency needed to back up trust loses it and soon becomes impotent and irrelevant.
There is a general consensus that, at least from the standpoint of progress and influence, 2013 was the worst year of the Obama presidency. His approval rating at the end of the first year of his second term is at the lowest of any president since Herbert Hoover. It is not so much that people have lost trust that Obama aspires to do what is right for the most people, but rather, they have increasing trepidations as to his competency as a leader. In other words people don’t question his desire to do the right thing, but there are questions regarding his ability to do the right thing. This emerging suspicion of incompetency is the residue of a trail of inconsistent words and actions by President Obama.
The leadership style of President Obama that has led to confusing actions and sputtering results is mentioned here because it can serve as a real-life, live learning-lesson for anyone who seeks any level of power and leadership. Many try to discover the secrets to successful leadership in schools and books. While some patterns can be absorbed from both, the best way to learn is by observing the challenges, travails, successes and failures of those in real-time leadership roles. The truth is that the opportunity to learn what works and what fails is available all the time and at all levels. It is possible to learn from the CEO of the company and even our own supervisor, just as much as we can gain by observing the actions of those in high levels of political power. One important point to recognize is that it’s possible to gain perspective on leadership by scrutinizing those who fail, just as much as those who are successful.
Watching the Political Drama Unfold on Obama’s Reality TV Show
The learning lesson here is President Obama’s actions as a leader. If you recall, the first promise Obama made was for “Change You Can Believe In.” Even for those who disagreed, there was little doubt that Obama was sincere in his desire to bring about change in government. And the changes he proposed were things a majority of American voters could believe in: Health care reform, transparency in government, renewed opportunity for the middle class, a bipartisan approach to politics and a refocusing of American foreign policy were just some of the major changes promised by candidate Obama. This is the type of action – setting a vision for accomplishment – that a leader can use to begin to build trust. But what Obama forgot – and no leader ever should forget:
Never promise more than can be delivered and always deliver more than promised.
It is critical for a leader to understand the difference between change, which means making things different and the sense of inconsistency that emerges when the approach to change changes. Followers must be able to take leader at their word or their word becomes meaningless.
Once a leader has won the battle to bring about change, only consistent words and actions will encourage everyone to move away from the status quo and convention of tradition and accept the new idea. On the other hand, inconsistency of word and action in implementing any change not only reduces the trust and confidence of followers, but provides leverage for those who are opposed to the change to weaken or destroy it.
There are a number of examples of inconsistent leadership that have allowed Obama to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but none more so than Obamacare. There is no question that Obamacare was a bruising fight, but there also is no question that Obama won the fight. Obama’s victory in health care reform would not have been possible without the trust of the people. Unfortunately for Obama’s reputation as a leader, the overpromises and inconsistencies that have followed have all but eviscerated the victory. Not only has this sputtering implementation of change severely tarnished Obama’s credibility as a trusted and competent leader, it has also provided chum in the water for the many sharks opposed to change.
Nor has Obama’s inconsistent leadership been limited to domestic affairs. In Egypt and the rest of the Middle East Obama called for a change toward democracy. Millions rose up in a cry for democracy, but when some semblance of it was achieved in Egypt, with a democratically elected government taking power, Obama became inconsistent in his support. Certainly the elected government in Egypt was not what the United States would have preferred, but that is not the point. The issue is consistency. You are either “for democracy” – and all it brings – or you are not. A leader cannot be consistent only when things go their way. If a leader is to retain the trust and confidence of followers they must be consistently consistent. Does Obama really have the trust and confidence of the people of Egypt and the Middle East that he is fully committed to democracy in the region? What will this do to his power to influence change in the future?
How can you be a trusted, strong successful leader if there are consistent inconsistencies between what you say and what you do? The answer is that you can’t be and it is a good lesson to learn. Trust is the most underrated aspect of organizational leadership. The presence of trust makes any effort possible. The absence of trust corrodes from within until nothing is possible. And nothing decays trust faster than inconsistency.
And the Moral of the Story …
The secret to building trust is consistency of purpose, words and action. What many don’t realize is that it is the little inconsistencies that wear away trust and prevent the achievement of great things; especially change. Personal style sets the tone for trust and consistency. It does not mean a leader has to be a saint, but it does mean that a leader can’t be a saint one day and the incarnation of the devil the next. Building trust starts with the consistency of the leader, even if consistency means consistently being a jerk. If a leader is going to set a standard – any standard – they have to stand by it. Developing trust for a leader does not mean that the followers necessarily like the leader or agree with the actions, but it does mean that they can count on the leader’s consistency.
There are no short-cuts, ticks or gimmicks that can be used to build trust, but there is a simple philosophy a leader can follow to take the trust gained and use it as a powerful vehicle for success. It is a secret as simple as 1-2-3.
- The leader must clearly communicate the vision and objectives to be accomplished.
- The leader must always do what they say they are going to do.
- Finally, the leader does 1 and 2 again and again.
If you want to succeed as a leader you must begin by being a consistent trust builder.