A Cautionary Tale for Business Leaders On the Value of Credibility & Empathy.
From the size of his hands to the size of his first “State of the Union” TV audience, President Donald Trump has spent the two-and-a-half years of his candidacy and presidency getting caught in outright lies, maligning everyone from American immigrants and Red Star families to a former Miss Universe, and taking credit for successes over which he had little control.
“President Trump has, so far, tarnished the reputation of business experience in public service, but good business skills are about sound leadership, which is consistent with good politics, and a quality that is badly needed in American government,” Dan Glickman, vice president of the Aspen Institute, and a former Congressmen and U.S. secretary of agriculture, recently opined.
Despite the news media documenting Trump’s long list of falsehoods and crude insults, today’s deeply partisan political environment has so far allowed him to publicly lie and malign with relative impunity. Yet, Trump’s credibility problem may finally catch up with him as he struggles to work with his own party to pass his legislative agenda and retain control of Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections.
His missteps and struggles may still yet offer important lessons for organizational leaders about building and maintaining credibility among stakeholders.
Trump’s Credibility Travails Offer Lessons for Corporate Leaders
As the political drama of Trump’s presidency continues to unfold, important questions it raises for leaders to ask themselves include:
Do your stakeholders support—and understand—your vision for the organization’s direction and goals? Are your employers, executives, and important external stakeholders able to predict or discern what matters to you and what your priorities are? Can they count on you to act consistently and rationally? Let’s hope your team’s appraisal of you isn’t akin to Republican Rep. Charlie Dent’s of Trump, who described the first iteration of Trump’s Muslim travel ban as “a fiasco,” being “blindsided,” and akin to being hit with “a crowbar to the bridge of the nose.” Leaders’ jobs involve making tough calls, but they must bring their team along when they make those decisions. If you’re unsure what others within your organization think of you as a manager, find out. Create an organizational ecosystem that values respectful candor and allows individuals to offer honest suggestions for improvement. Then regularly visit with your stakeholders—and carefully consider their concerns, observations and suggestions.
Do you insult, stereotype or humiliate colleagues—or even rivals? A company is not a democracy, so you have the right—and responsibility—to act in a way you believe is in your organization’s best interest. If, however, you choose to insult, bully or humiliate colleagues, do so at your own peril. While such conduct should never be condoned, consider it from a purely agnostic standpoint. How much will you be able to count on your team and organization when the going inevitably gets tough? And what does it say about your character if you publicly disparage rivals who have bested you fair and square? It probably won’t serve you well to publicly call your chief lieutenant “a very weak and ineffective leader” (Trump about Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) or insinuate that a formidable opponent would prostitute herself to retain her position (Trump about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand). Strong leaders push their subordinates and foster healthy competition, but they also engender mutual respect and empathy.
How do you publicly face defeats, deliver bad news and mediate between competing interests? While everyone prefers to be liked, leaders aren’t there to be beloved, nor should they strive to make people happy all the time. In particular, delivering bad news such as layoffs or product failures, or acknowledging defeats of long-sought goals aren’t easy. But you risk your longer-term ability to lead your organization if you publicly peg failures to individual executives. It can be even worse when you call out your entire leadership team (as Trump did with all Congressional Republicans for the anemic progress on his legislative agenda).
Leaders exhibit an appreciation for lessons learned through failure, share credit in good times, and inspire at all times. They offer hope and encouragement for opportunities in the near and long term, and they also offer hope during the dark days. Remember the words of another president—Harry S. Truman’s “the buck stops here”—and recognize that accepting responsibility for failure and clearly articulating a new course improves your authority and credibility.
There are no one-size-fits-all templates or step-by-step guides on being a credible, effective leader. But while witnessing Trump’s presidency, reflect on how you can lead in a more truthful, respectful and measured manner. Credibility breeds predictability, which fosters security which motivates and engages stakeholders. These are qualities important to any healthy organization—or country.
Founder and Managing Partner at WPNT Ltd.
Stephanie Nora White is founder and managing partner of WPNT Ltd. The firm has provided communications training and strategy to organizations worldwide ranging from Fortune 300 companies to Silicon Valley start-ups for more than 20 years. She is working on a book about how to establish meaningful business connections in today’s algorithm-driven world.