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Leadership Lessons from the Political Follies

Politics provide an interesting show. Like a multi-act play, there are heroes and villains, plot twists and surprises. Everyone in the audience sees the show a little differently and when it’s all over, everyone applauds and returns to their normal lives, though some stay to watch the repeat performance which begins the next day.

As the players take the stage for this quadrennial show, there are a few parts of the play that remain constant for every performance. There are players who we, the audience, love to hate. Many of us find one or two players who we are convinced are the real heroes, but most audience members don’t trust most of the players.

Why is that? Why do we have a general distrust of those who seek to be our nation’s leaders? Most likely because the actions of many politicians seem untrustworthy. It often seems that politicians are too willing to change their deeply held beliefs to satisfy special interests and make promises they can’t, or at least don’t keep.

These political follies provide some valuable insight for leaders to avoid being thought of as untrustworthy.

  1. It’s hard to consistently say things you don’t really believe. At some point you’ll slip and say what you really think, or you’ll get caught up in conflicting statements as you try to please everyone.
  2. Values are not situational and core values don’t often change. Leaders who don’t clearly define their own core values, and stick to them, set themselves up for an internal conflict that can destroy them.
  3. You can’t sell snake oil for any length of time. When people find it doesn’t really work, they’ll come for you and it won’t be pleasant. People are allowed to make mistakes, but when you start out with something you know is flawed, you’re headed down the road to ruin.
  4. You can’t please everyone. Those who try end up pleasing no one. A peer of mine used to tell his boss one thing, his team something else, and when the senior leadership was around, his story would change again. It wasn’t long before he lost everyone’s trust and became marginalized and irrelevant.
  5. You don’t know everything. My favorite leaders were those who admitted to what they didn’t know. That doesn’t mean they remained ignorant, just that they didn’t try to act on issues until they had filled in their knowledge gaps. Remember that ignorance is merely not knowing, and it can be fixed. There is no shame in ignorance. Stupidity is acting on ignorance, and as the saying goes, you can’t fix stupid.

To be a good leader and avoid being thought of as a politician, know who you are, and what you believe. Then stick to it.


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