The American Presidency Begins With Trust

Conventional political wisdom is that Americans want to like their presidents. More than a senator or a governor, it’s the president who winds up “on TV in our living rooms,” or now on our smartphones and laptops. So, we’re told, likeability – more than ideology or policy prescriptions – governs our electoral choices. Maybe some of the time. But I’d like to suggest that what voters really crave is trust – particularly in this tumultuous campaign season on both sides of the aisle.

I’ve been thinking about the principle of trust for most of my professional life – as an executive, as a teacher, as an investor and business partner. I’ve come to realize that many think of “trust” merely as some fuzzy, feel-good impulse that describes an emotional reaction to another person or situation. But as a leadership principle, that’s all wrong. Instead, trust is a powerful, specific, hard-edged concept that is essential for great leaders – never more so than for an American president.

Surely, economic and social issues divide us. Whether we’re debating taxes or healthcare or immigration, there are big differences in reasonable opinions. The political system’s apparent inability to come to grips with a range of problems accounts for much of the popularity of some of our outlier candidates. Deeper down, though, our frustration stems from our lack of trust.

Building trust – whom, when and how – is a prerequisite to becoming an effective leader (or for that matter, an executive or spouse or parent). Because trust means turning over power, you have to be smart about it. Among other things, you must ensure that those you trust: have character (possessing a fiduciary attitude and putting your interests ahead of theirs); are competent (possessing the actual skills to deliver); and have the authority to deliver (empowered to fulfill promises). Remove any of these three preconditions, and it’s folly to give up one’s power and to think trust will lead to success.

In politics, having the authority to deliver is a tricky proposition. Presidents aren’t dictators. They have to work within a system of checks and balances. Even so, it’s fair to ask if a candidate’s promises stand any realistic chance of adoption – or, instead, whether pledges more likely constitute pandering.

Competence and character are particularly valuable in assessing electoral trustworthiness. Does the candidate have the chops to deliver what he or she vows in a speech? And do you think they’ll put your interests ahead of theirs? Few of us would suggest that politicians are saints, in the game only for altruistic purposes. Ego of course plays a part. But the reason there’s bipartisan consensus on who was a great president – think Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, for example – is that we’ve concluded they served for the greater good and were willing to sacrifice politically to achieve it.

There are two especially dispiriting (and ironic) features of the current presidential race: an angry public, along with widespread dissatisfaction about many of the candidates. I think the best explanation for it is the lack of competence and character displayed by the candidates. No, not in equal measures and not on all issues – and no, I’m not naming names. That’s not the point.

What’s essential, though, is that at the very least we address what’s missing. The candidates are all imploring us to trust them. But just as we ourselves earn trust, many of our political leaders have earned our distrust. No society (or business or organization) can long withstand the breakdown of trust. As the primaries continue – and as the conventions and a general election approaches – could we not demand the candidates to begin thinking harder and more intentionally about building trust?

By Joel Peterson