Obama and Syria: A Lesson in CEO Credibility

CEO credibility

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Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently released his book “A Passion for Leadership,” and it has a great lesson in CEO credibility. In it he discusses the situation in Syria. President Obama stated in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that Syrian President Assad could not cross without provoking military intervention from the United States. Gates says that it was a “serious mistake” when President Obama failed to follow up on this after Assad used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria in 2013. He believes that this action caused a loss of credibility for the U.S. around the world.

While CEOs don’t have to make the life and death decisions the President does, the same principle is at play. The challenge with credibility is that you don’t get many chances to recover. Most people will give you one mulligan, but that is about it.

The most common mistake I see from CEOs is being consistently overly optimistic in their projections. Every time they miss a forecast, they lose credibility. When they lose credibility, they also lose influence with the organization. Without influence, a CEO can’t drive the direction of the organization.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your CEO credibility (From “The CEO Tightrope”):

  1. Is there any discoverable fact about you personally that would cause your team to question your credibility?
  2. Have others ever exaggerated your accomplishments? How did you respond?
  3. Has there ever been a time, in your communications as CEO, when you shaded the facts in order to provide a more positive spin on performance?
  4. Is the message you communicate to your stakeholders ever different from the message you send to your closest team members?
  5. Have employees ever heard you skirt the truth with external stakeholders or customers?

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