Like Any New Boss, the Next President Will Need to Build a Great Team — and Trust

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In this series, professionals provide advice for the next U.S. president. What do you want POTUS focused on? Write your own #nextpresident post here.

Trust is the cornerstone not only of successful businesses, but of government as well. Our current nadir in national politics is largely a product of widespread distrust. That needs to be repaired before progress can be made on a range of important substantive areas of policy. Trust undergirds our institutions. Without trust, institutions flounder – none more so than the Presidency.

I would advise the next U.S. President that we can no longer afford to be buffeted by every political gust of wind. More than ever, given threats to both national security and economic health, our new leader must be clear-eyed about priorities – undistracted by blips, unmoved by playground taunts, undeterred by ever-quickening news cycles.

At a time when noise wins the day over discourse, when citizens seem utterly disinclined to believe what leaders tell them, the next president must initially focus on building unity and thereby trust. As Lincoln noted as the Civil War approached: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” For a President to succeed, he or she cannot see the country as two Americas or even two parties. A great President must see 320 million constituent shareholders in a common venture. For such an apparently disparate constituency, there are two unifying priorities in which virtually everyone has a stake: national security in an age or terror and economic growth after years of stagnation. Both should drive the President’s core agenda.

Specifically, I’d urge the President to set a goal of economic growth of at least 3% a year. And while national security cannot so easily be quantified, I’d suggest an explicit objective of destroying, or at least neutralizing, ISIS within 12 months; on the latter score, I’d also counsel any President to state an inclination to follow what the military advises, even if the domestic political consequences appear to be risky.

In my view, achieving these twin ends would go a long way toward solving issues that appear to divide us and that corrode trust. Of course, it’s at the level of actual tactics that political fireworks are their most spectacular, entertaining – and destructive; it is here that politicians tend to lose their way – and our support. For a President to be a statesman, however, there are three tactical steps to take in order to advance national security and economic well-being:

  • Recruit the best people: This, along with building a united team of teams, is the key to running the government. Great people will have expertise, track records of delivering results, and above all the skill to work well with others. Partisans and ideologues need not apply. Great people exist on either side of the aisle in government, as well as in the private sector. Running the government competently will reduce costs, ease cynicism – and build trust.
  • Simplify the agenda: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously wrote, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Finding far-side simplicity, while sure to create conflict at the tactical level, is vital to great leadership. Unless the agenda is simple, people can’t execute on it. Virtually everyone would concede that Americans no longer trust our government in part because it’s become so complex.
  • Insist on metrics: Setting objectives and then measuring progress includes understanding that the second- and third-order consequences of not succeeding sow mistrust. In the economic arena, failure to achieve at least 3% of growth per year condemns Americans to fighting over a shrinking pie. Nobody wins. Innovation slows. Yes, it’s difficult to ensure economic growth, but only a quantitative measure ensures political focus, be it on taxes or regulation or trade. Republicans and Democrats can agree on that.

In the long run, the power of the Presidency to make a difference depends first on the trust of the American people. While negative beats positive during campaign season, the opposite’s true when it comes time to running the government (or, for that matter, a non-profit or a business) – one of the paradoxes of our political system. And negative kills trust.

So, I’d plead with the next President, on the day he or she takes office, to drop the polemics and to work to deserve the trust of all Americans. Try to compromise – just as President Reagan did with Tip O’Neill, just as President Clinton did with Newt Gingrich. Assume the better nature of the other side – we’re all Americans and more unites us than divides us. Learn honest respect for contrary points of view. And ignore what political instincts you may have to the contrary. It may be tempting to respond to every perceived provocation – be they from rivals or interest groups or TV pundits. But leadership rooted in trust demands that you focus on the long game.

By Joel Peterson