When politicians mess up, the story becomes larger than a local story. It hurts so many and shatters the trust we have in our institutions.
Trust in institutions has been falling since the 1960s and it isn't improving. In Canada, we are obsessed with the fiasco that is taking place in the Mayor's office in Toronto. The city is reacting to daily reports of scandal as the Mayor and his family are embroiled in reports of drug use and illegal activity. Much of it is speculation and rumour, as there is no hard evidence as of yet. However, at this point, the facts are irrelevant. The damage has been done by the media reports and the Mayor's ineffective responses to them. When trust has been breached, it's critical that it be handled head on with transparency and authenticity. Issuing denials, denigrating the media who reported it and claiming they are out to get him, is only serving to fuel the mistrust.
Consider another scandalized politician Anthony Weiner. Weiner was a New York congressman who resigned from his Congressional seat when it was revealed that he was involved in a sexting scandal. He initially denied the reports but admitted the truth about 10 days later. However, his denial and his defiance cost him his job and his integrity. He is now attempting to make a comeback and time will tell if the public has forgiven him. It will be a test of his credibility.
Finally, Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, lost his position due to his poor handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. His denial of responsibility, his mishandling of the crisis and his famous line "I just want my life back" were all contributors to his ouster. When executives minimize the harm they have caused and attempt to deflect or deny culpability, trust is impossible to rebuild. Even worse, when the leader makes it about him/her instead of those who have been harmed, it suggests a callousness with the "business as usual" demeanour, and can have very damaging effects to corporate reputation.
In my research on trust, I heard time and again that trust can be recovered after a breach. There are few absolutes and most people are open, forgiving and understanding. People understand that we all make mistakes, say things in the heat of the moment and at times allow our emotions to override our good judgement. While we demand high standards of those in authority, we recognize that we have all experienced a fall from grace.
So, the issue isn't that we judge harshly or that we are unfair in how we evaluate our leaders. We hold those in positions of power to a higher standard, as we should. These are people whose roles authorize them to act in our name and on our behalf. However, we also recognize their fallibility. When those in power fall, and do so publicly, we look to them to make it right. How should leaders right the wrongs?
- Admit the truth and confirm the facts, without excuses or blame. Accept your role in the situation and be accountable for your behaviour. When the Maple Leaf Foods listeriosis crisis occurred, CEO Michael McCain immediately accepted responsibility. He assigned no blame. His behaviour and response remains the gold standard in crisis management. (See this wonderful analysis by Jeffrey Gandz of the Ivey School of Business at UWO.)
- Respond immediately. Delay only contributes to the speculation and to the uncertainty. Confirm what you know and provide a roadmap of how you plan to handle the situation. You may not have all the answers; people aren't expecting that. They are expecting you to connect with them, share your knowledge and be open about the situation.
- Keep talking. Don't wait for the media to hound you; be visible, be open, answer questions honestly and transparently. Most importantly, show humility. This is not the time for defiance, arrogance or defensiveness. Your job is to serve so be of service.
People want to believe and want to place their faith in others and institutions. As a society, we can't function without basic trust in others. Leaders who lose sight of the fact that they are in service to others, who believe that they are more important than their community are leaders who have lost their way; and hence the moral authority to make decisions on others' behalf.
The Mayor Ford saga will continue; he hasn't learned the lessons of humility, grace and openness. Until he does, his effectiveness as Mayor and his credibility as a leader will be severely compromised.