Perception of Leadership


Time and time again, I am asked: “What do you think 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 perception? Of course, it would.

Great leadership can be hard 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 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 they feel is the right thing to do and that their supporters are okay with, but that action might anger or even hurt many people on the other side. Is this good or bad? It depends on which side you’re on because not everyone will be happy about the result.

Still, perception is very important to discuss regarding leadership principles because public perceptions can make or break a leader and define their legacy. What follows is nothing more than a few things to consider regarding 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, which is usually NOT done by the leader. This is like how Rudy Giuliani is currently (at least usually) seen as a great leader, even though his tenure as Mayor of New York could easily be classified as abysmal. Happenstance and media coverage helped forge public perception of him due 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.

Leaders who cannot rise to greatness on the back of a tragedy must forge public perception the old-fashioned way. Few could argue that things like character, intentions, values, and principles are all essential 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 quickly suggest that public perception is solely based on how effective that leader was at reaching that leader’s goals. I’ve seen many arguments suggesting this, but I disagree somewhat. For example, I think Dan Marino was a great leader despite losing 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 proactively working to achieve that goal. I’m not disputing that at all. And if that leader achieves the goal, more power to that leader. I’m suggesting that public perception hinges on leadership truly understanding their follower’s needs or wants and working to THAT end specifically. Pay attention here. If, as a leader, your goals do not align with your followers’ wishes, you will likely not get great reviews. However, if you go all Rudy Ruettiger for the wants and desires of your people, they will love you for it, even if you fail.  

This creates an interesting paradigm when you think about it in a “real world” setting. Some leaders don’t care about their followers, but their followers still love them. Remember that Hitler and Mao were loved at one point. Of course, in many of these cases, the leader’s goals 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 followers’ goals (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 hurt the effort? How would I like to be included and treated if I were a follower?

I 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 written about you will not be kind. To give you an even better idea, leaders have been killed in past centuries 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. I would argue that we see the opposite of this idea play out repeatedly, and it rarely ends well. If you want public perceptions of you to be good, you must be good to your people. In America, for example, we are supposed to be hiring people to exercise our power on our behalf. What does the public usually do when a leader goes against the wishes of those who elected that official?  

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 followers rarely want the details anyway. What they seek is progress toward 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 a leader attempting to punish everyone by taking away all unalienable rights to curb the abuses of a few, even though those abuses are what that leader was hired to get rid of. That leader must 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 action plan that may cause 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 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.

Of course, this is just an example, 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 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 did it. He even denied personal involvement. However, a poor perception of him remains because questions about what he did to stop or fix the problem remain 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 some 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 of 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. History is riddled with leaders who had the “best of intentions,” having the suggested criteria of character, and still failed miserably as a leader or even fell 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 believe that consequences CAN be a somewhat reliable assessment of leadership. Christie is an excellent example of an egotistical opportunist – not exactly a leader I would want to handle my state’s affairs. Still, this assessment is based entirely on the consequences of what I provided. Of course, not many people like him now, and it’s unlikely 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 in 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 matter. Locally or even regionally, outsiders’ opinions may not matter. This is how some cities and states in America can remain red or blue despite Presidential politics or how convicted felons are repeatedly elected despite national coverage. 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 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 intentions, values, and principles (in alignment with his beliefs and most of his followers). However, the consequences of his actions have now cast a shadow on his entire reign regarding 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 you might want to consider the perception of the person reviewing your actions. It’s a complicated topic, but it has a straightforward answer. Remember that actions may speak louder than words, but words provide lasting perceptions of those actions. You may not want to be written about in an article like this. If you don’t care, that’s fine, I guess, but if you do, you need to be 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 sums up the complexities of this topic. Also, the “correct” answer is likely hidden unless you can 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. Many wouldn’t fault a person for following orders that ended badly if they came from the president. Most might even give the guy a pass while chastising the president for forcing the action 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 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 makes Ford a lousy 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 fine with Ford’s decision and some of you have different ideas about 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.