Perception of Leadership


Time and time again, I am asked: “What makes a great leader?” I’m here to tell you that the answer is often relative. I mean, wouldn’t that be based on your personal perception? Of course, it would.


Great leadership can be a hard thing to wrap your head around when you factor in the “other side“. This is especially true when you include the human factor. In other words; no one is perfect so no leader is perfect. It’s further complicated when a leader does something good and then does something bad – or vice versa.

Also, understand that perceptions themselves can be relative and biased. What I think is “good”, another might simply find offensive. Take the “wall” issue. Democrats found that perfectly acceptable before Trump became president and now they hate it. So is the wall good or bad? I guess it depends on the leadership.

Similarly, a leader might do something that he/she feels is the right thing to do and something his/her supporters are okay with but that action might anger or even hurt a great number of people on the other side. Is this good or bad? It really depends on which side you’re on because not everyone is going to be happy about the result.

Still, perception is a very important thing to discuss in regard to leadership principles because public perceptions can make or break a leader and/or define their legacy. What follows is nothing more than a few things to consider in regard to how you approach your leadership. Leaders make tough decisions; that’s just what they do… but leaders should know that the aftermath of a decision or action will be judged. Simply approaching any decision or action with this in mind will help tremendously.

It also needs to be stated that public perceptions can be manipulated to both a good and bad end and this is usually NOT done by the leader. This is sort of like how Rudy Giuliani is currently (at least usually) seen as a great leader in spite of the fact that his tenure as Mayor of New York could easily be classified as abysmal. Happenstance and media coverage helped forge public perception of him due in great part to how he navigated the tragedy of 9/11. How will history define him though? I guess we’ll see.

Regardless, perception is a powerful thing and something that ALL leaders need to understand. As a follower or a leader, know that perception can be used for or against you. For some, it can be used as a tool or even a weapon.

Now, for leaders who cannot rise to greatness on the back of a tragedy, they must forge public perception the old-fashioned way. Few could argue that things like character, intentions, values, and principles are all important aspects that will likely be considered. Unfortunately, these alone will usually not be enough.

So how do perceptions get forged for a hard-working leader? Some are quick to suggest that public perception is solely based on how effective that leader was at reaching that leader’s goals. I’ve seen a lot of arguments that suggest this but I don’t agree – at least not entirely. For example, I think Dan Marino was a great leader in spite of the fact that he lost his only Super Bowl appearance. In fact, I can think of quite a few great leaders that didn’t achieve their stated goals but were transformational in what they did while in power.  

This is not meant to discount the importance of a leader having a clear and concise goal and to proactively work to achieve that goal. I’m not disputing that at all. And if that leader actually achieves the goal; more power to that leader. What I’m suggesting is that public perception hinges on leadership truly understanding his or her follower’s needs and/or wants and working to THAT end specifically. Pay attention here. If as a leader, your goals do not align with the wishes of your followers, you are likely not going to get great reviews. However, if you go all Rudy Ruettiger for the wants and wishes of your people, they will love you for it; even if you fail.  

This actually creates an interesting paradigm when you think about it in a “real world” setting. Some leaders just don’t care about their followers and somehow their followers still love them. Remember that Hitler and Mao were loved at one point. Of course, in many of these cases, the goals of the leader are kept silent and their followers are not made aware of that leader’s true intentions until it’s too late. This should be a lesson for those seeking money and power in a less-than-ethical manner – the truth will eventually be revealed.  

Still, because of this, some might suggest that leadership goals that align with their follower’s wishes should be regarded as solid and made public while goals that may not align with the goals of followers (or even doubts about follower goals) should be hidden. So ask yourself a few questions – Will disclosure of doubt help or harm the effort? Will disclosure of details or expected results help or harm the effort? How would I like to be included and treated if I were a follower?

I would suggest that disclosure is always the best policy if you seek a positive legacy. On a similar note, if your followers are not on-board with your goals or if you are not on-board with your follower’s goals, it needs to be known and addressed. Another way to say this might be to follow through with the promises you were hired to achieve to the best of your ability. I want you to understand that if you deliberately hide details or lead your followers to a bad result, your following will likely lose trust in you and the perceptions that are written about you will not be kind. To give you an even better idea, in past centuries, leaders have been killed for such things.

It should also be emphatically stated that it’s more important for leaders to understand their follower’s wishes than it is for their followers to understand their leader’s wishes. In fact, I would argue that we see the opposite of this idea play out time and time again, and it rarely ends well. If you want public perceptions of you to be good, you must be good for your people. In America for example, we are supposed to be hiring people to exercise our power on our behalf. When a leader goes against the wishes of those who elected that official, what does the public usually do?  

Of course… while it seems simple; nothing can be so cut and dry. There is another side to all of this. We must also understand that generally speaking, followers rarely want the details anyway. What they really seek is progress towards a result.

So with this in mind, it’s easy to understand that the results THEY seek must at least be a focus of your leadership and communication efforts. And of course, we must also understand that the ends will likely NOT justify the means as far as they are concerned. This goes back to the ethical part. An example of this might be in a leader attempting to punish everyone by taking away all unalienable rights in the effort to curb the abuses of a few; even though those abuses are what that leader was hired to get rid of. That leader needs to find another way because punishing everyone was not what the followers were asking for!

A leader may have issues, problems, obstacles, and even doubts. That’s okay. That leader may have a detailed plan of action that may cause some discomfort. That’s okay too. So how could a leader address and convey details or doubts without destroying their status as a leader?

Good question! You can either A) stand up to be a leader and shout that you have doubts and/or no idea what the solution to the collective problem is, or you can B) stand up to be a leader and shout that you have an overall goal that you would like to meet and that you are confident that your team can find the solution to any of the unknowns that you currently.

This is just an example of course, but I’m sure you can see the difference. If you are doing it right, you are keeping your followers informed without burdening them with the details – while still leaving the door open for questions and concerns. In fact, by standing up and being honest, you may actually get the volunteers or ideas you need to correct the problem(s) you have.

Let’s examine the perceptions of some real-world scenarios for a moment.

How did Martin Winterkorn (CEO of Volkswagen) look after it was discovered that company engineers installed software that manipulated emissions on roughly 11 million diesel vehicles? He wasn’t the one that actually did it. He even denied personal involvement. However, a poor perception of him remains because questions of what he did to actually stop or fix the problem remains unanswered.

How did New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie look after going after Trump during his campaign saying that the “President of the United States is not a place for an entertainer” and then jumping on the Trump bandwagon when he found out he wouldn’t get the nod… by announcing that he wanted to try to be Vice President? Flip-Flopper? Opportunist?

Situations like these are important to examine because there are some that might suggest that consequences are not a reliable assessment of leadership. I’ve even read that “The quality and worth of leadership can be measured only in terms of what a leader intends, values believes in, or stands for – in other words, character (Ciulla, 2004)”.  I suppose there are plenty that might support this idea, but I’m not on-board due in great part to the contrast. Perhaps that is word-smithing or splitting hairs but the Winterkorn situation and others like it are great examples as to why I feel that way. Consequences are an important thing to consider because some leaders carry them entirely – and this is especially true when good leaders are standing up to strong tyrants. Tell the Scottish that consequences don’t matter (ref: William Wallace).

Public perceptions of good or bad leadership are long-lasting. While obviously, the character of a leader is a fundamental aspect of leadership, the old saying “The road to hell is paved with great intentions” must be provided here. “Good Intentions” are relative and history is riddled with leaders who had the “best of intentions”, having the suggested criteria of character, and still failing miserably as a leader or even falling from grace because they were thinking more about themselves than of their followers. I’m sure you can think of at least a few. The opposite seems to be true as well. It reminds me of an article on saw on Forbes titled “Why Bad People Make The Best Leaders“.

I personally believe that consequences CAN be a somewhat reliable assessment of leadership. Christie is a great example of an egotistical-opportunist – not exactly a leader I would want handling the affairs of my state but this assessment is based entirely on the consequences of what I provided. Of course, not many people like him now and it’s unlikely that he will see any kind of substantial power in the future. See what I mean? At the very least, and historically speaking, consequences do play a decent part of the overall grade. I’m sure Rudy is a great guy but I’m confident that history will see to it that his leadership will be seen in an appropriate light. This is just something to keep in mind.

Of course, leaders also need to gauge which opinions really matter. Locally or even regionally, the opinions of outsiders may not matter at all. This is how some cities and/or states in America can remain red or blue in spite of Presidential politics or how convicted felons are repeatedly elected in spite of national coverage. Actually, this is more common than you might think. Consider Republican Congressmen, Chris Collins of New York, Duncan Hunter of California, Democratic New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, Attorney General Ken Paxton or even Rep. Greg Gianforte. Their followers know what they are getting and they are fine with it. So be it.

Or let’s take a moment to talk about King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Abdullah had the best of intentions, values, and principles (in alignment with his beliefs and in most of his followers). However, the consequences of his actions have now cast a shadow on his entire reign in regard to global public perception, as he oversees arguably the most oppressive system against women in the world. Will it bite him eventually or will he be forever seen as a great king? I’m bringing this up specifically because it makes you wonder about his character – even perceived character can be relative.

The point that I’m trying to convey is that the perception of the person reviewing your actions is something you might want to consider. It’s a complicated topic but it actually has a very easy answer. Remember that actions may speak louder than words but words provide lasting perceptions of those actions. You may not want to end up being written about in an article like this one. If you don’t care, that’s fine I guess but if you do, then you need to be both ethical and strategic and care more about your people than you do yourself. That’s it… work your ass for your people and you will be loved.

I’ll close with a complex question to ponder. I like this one because it sort of sums up the complexities of this topic. Also, the “correct” answer is likely hidden unless you’re able to see above the political “sides“. So here it is…

Most people feel compelled to follow the orders of their leaders and this is especially true when it comes to government workers. In fact, many wouldn’t fault a person for following orders that ended badly if it came from the President. In fact, most might even give the guy a pass while chastising the President for forcing the act in the first place. We’ve seen this before, a few times.

So consider this: common public perception is that Nixon was a bad President. I’m not really debating that point here but if that’s true, then how exactly does Gerald Ford get to be labeled “one of the best presidents” when Ford issued President Nixon a pardon while at the same time, he let forty-three others rot in prison for simply following Nixon’s orders?

See what I mean? It’s tough. In my opinion, this actually makes Ford a bad president. To me, a good president would have let them all rot, OR pardon the forty-three others and let Nixon rot, OR pardon them all with a requirement of mandatory public service. Of course, I’m sure that some of you are just fine with Ford’s decision and some of you have different ideas of how you would have handled it.

It’s relative and based on perception.

Be sure to check out my article titled “Beware of Self-Serving Bias.