[February 22, 2016] As I watch and listen to U.S. political candidates’ speeches and their debates, I began to wonder what are the non-negotiable traits in a leader. What do people think about when they go to vote? What makes them reject one candidate over another, reject one leader over another leader? This week during my travels across the U.S., I got the chance to ask a few of my fellow travelers about that very thing.
Being in an airport and waiting for the next flight gave me more time to really think about leadership and to talk with people to get their thoughts on what they want to have in a leader. I also got to speak with several military families who were traveling (mostly in airport USOs). Nearly without exception, the main thing people want to see in a leader is someone who is trustworthy. I wasn’t too surprised by this, of course, so I asked why.
Trust is something that a leader must have to get the job done and done right. I had one elderly gentleman, a World War II veteran, tell me that if he couldn’t trust what a leader told him then the leader could “go to hell” before he would follow. A younger military spouse told me that she was thinking of voting for Hillary Clinton and that it was experience that counted more than anything else. But without prompting she did say trust was important and perhaps the most important thing and maybe she would reconsider her choice.
Credibility was a common trait expressed but when we talked about what made a person credible, then trust always was there. I found nearly everyone I met that trustworthiness was the main trait people wanted in a leader. They wanted to believe what a person tells them is true because their lives are based on it. When asked about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I was told they each have credibility and they will do what they said they will do. Although many didn’t like what Trump or Sanders said, at least they believed what they said.
This explains, at least in part, why Trump and Sanders have made such progress in the run-up to the elections later this year. Most people simply don’t trust politicians and the longer they’ve been a politician, the harder it is to trust them. Although Sanders has been a politician a long time, he has always been an outsider. Jeb Bush is a classic example of an insider politician, having been a successful governor of Florida and experienced, he did poorly in the polling for the presidency.
We hear about scandals when leaders get themselves into trouble. Scandals mean that a leader loses the trust of people. Whether it’s their fault or not, leaders are responsible for those things that happen on their watch. Failure can happen for a variety of reasons but any leader who refuses to take responsibility for things they have authority over, is not a leader that can be trusted. That is why Hillary Clinton is having such a difficult time. For people who believe trustworthiness is important, they will not vote for Clinton.
There is a lesson for leaders. Develop trust. It is hard to gain and easy to lose.
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