[May 16, 2020] “Read my lips; no new taxes.” In 1988, then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush made a simple, clear promise that he would not raise taxes on the American people if elected. Later, he failed to live up to his promise. His political opponents repeatedly questioned his trustworthiness, and he lost re-election. When leaders make a promise, that becomes their new priority.
Making a promise and carrying it out is, indeed, a measure of character. Anyone who makes a promise, gives their word they will do something, or pledges their support and yet does not live up to the deal, or lies to you, has broken a sacred trust. Betrayal is the most undesirable quality of a leader and often the very reason so many leaders fail. A quick reading of Dante’s Inferno is a literature classic that demonstrates the depths of betrayal in a hard-hitting fashion.
In my early days of Army life, I had a friend, Gregory, who was notorious for not returning phone calls, despite promising to do so. This problem was a small thing but irritating. It was also his downfall, as he regularly failed to carry out assignments he promised to do. His boss at work fired him one day and said he was fed up with Gregory not doing what he said he would do. Gregory made promises and did not consider them important enough to act on them.
Senior leaders are better at making and keeping promises. The first thing we see in a senior leader is a reluctance to make a promise unless it is vitally important. They then put all their effort in quickly bringing the commitment to a beneficial conclusion. Quickly is the keyword here. A promise must is given priority because everyone sees it as part of who you are. Character for a senior leader is the grease that gets things done.
From the Bible, we learn that Moses spoke to all the Israelites during their long, arduous journey out of Egypt. He said, “And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not.”1 The Israelites had sworn they would follow the word of God. They were being tested.
In the study of the psychology of humans, we find that the breaking of social bonds is a form of betrayal. Betrayal is part of a series of meta-stories from our past that shines a light on what we value and what we despise; much like this story of Moses. We don’t like broken promises. We follow the rules of our community and friends because it is who we are, not just what we are not.
The lessons for leaders is simple. Make a promise; make it your new priority. Get ‘er done!
- Deuteronomy 8:2, English Standard Version, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Deuteronomy+8%3A2&version=ESV