Donald Trump’s recent debacle* — lauding Putin, ignoring his own intelligence agencies and blaming America for the poor United States/Russian relationship, and then reversing course after a tsunami of outrage — is instructive for leaders. Here’s the directive: Leadership is not polling!

Leadership has obligations, and making tough decisions and sticking with them is one of them (I’m not suggesting that Trump stick with his infatuation of Putin, nor his disdain for American intelligence agencies). 

I most often see leaders make the “polling” mistake because they need to be liked. It’s wonderful to be admired, but it’s better to be respected for doing what you believe is right over the long term, even when it pisses people off. 

There’s a not-so-fine line between collaboration and abdication of leadership. I firmly believe that leaders must use teamwork as a tool to make better decisions and build commitment within their team. However, when collaboration crosses the line and becomes mere polling on every decision, you no longer have a CEO — you have a polling machine. You cannot merely preside; you must lead! “How will this make me look?” shouldn’t be the first question that crosses your mind every time a decision must be made. That is narcissism, not leadership.

Hitting the sweet spot between extreme collaboration and autocracy requires several things from a leader. Humility, confidence, a vision, and guiding principles are most important. In addition, it must be clear to the team when you’ll take positional authority and make an independent decision. One of the worst things you can do to talented people is second-guess them and overrule their decisions. 

There are times, however, when you alone should decide. Most CEOs know when that is. It’s when there’s a material, strategic issue at hand. It’s when the reputation of the firm is at hand. It’s when there’s a morally imperative decision at hand. The challenge, of course, is that if you make the wrong decision, you’ll be the one to pay the consequences. Get over it. That’s why you get the big bucks. 


*Warning: When I say “recent,” please recognize that there may have been several more by the time this publishes.