Communicating Faith in Those You Lead


There seems to be no shortage of organizations in need of moving in a different direction. Usually the cause is a combination of a changing environment and leadership’s inability to prepare or respond appropriately.  The realization that a significant course correction is needed often creates doubt and uncertainty across an organization.  The response ranges from paralysis to manic activity. At lower levels in the organization, the growing lack of trust in senior leadership often leads to significant declines in engagement levels.  New leadership entering the story at this point has to understand how to change the narrative with careful messaging and concrete action.

Doris Kearns Goodwin in Leadership in Turbulent Times captures this challenge on a grand scale in her description of Franklin Roosevelt’s first one hundred days in office.  With nearly a quarter of the labor force out of work and thousands of banks collapsing, outgoing President Herbert Hoover summed up the moment with, “We are at the end of our string.”  The unprecedented suffering and uncertainty had the whole country looking to the next President as the only one who could save a sinking ship. That kind of expectation is a double-edged sword.  The leader has everyone’s attention and best wishes but can also lead to quick disappointment when miracles don’t happen. Also, people don’t see themselves as part of the solution but rather sitting on the sidelines watching the leader play the game.

President Roosevelt brought to the challenge his own experience in facing a crisis that was unexpected and life changing.  At age 39, he became paralyzed from the waist down due to polio.  Not only did this forever change his daily routines but at times created a serious roadblock to pursuing his political ambitions.  During his presidency, Roosevelt would draw on the intense physical and emotional energy required for him to pass through this valley.  When asked about how he dealt with all the problems he faced as president, he replied,” if you spent two years in bed trying to wiggle your big toe, anything would seem easy!”  In pursuing his dream to walk again (which was never realized) he invested a good deal of his personal funds in establishing a rehabilitation center. In his roles as founder, director and patient, he greatly expanded his capacity for empathy, humility, and serving others.

Through his understanding of helplessness and fear, he immediately communicated to the American people that a new beginning was underway.  He did not diminish the challenge but called people to participate together in a great cause and uttered the famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  He desired for the “ordinary man” to not see the problem as one of scarcity but one where previous leadership has failed to properly steward the available resources.  This laid the groundwork for him to ask for broad based support to launch unprecedented initiatives.  Throughout the country and the government, the new president received not just well wishes but created a sense of expectation that problems could get solved.  In doing so, Roosevelt created the right environment for people to want to play their part.

To restore confidence in the banking system, Roosevelt had to close the banks for a week to stabilize the situation.  This came at an enormous risk as people could see the week long closure as the reason to withdraw what money they had left in their banks as soon as they reopened.  The night before the banks opened their doors, Roosevelt through a radio broadcast explained the situation in simple, straightforward language.  The next day long lines formed outside the banks not to withdraw money but to deposit it.  People acted based on trust and understanding.

In addition to bringing “the people” along with him, Roosevelt built a team that executed his vision and created opportunities for a broad range of stakeholders to be involved. Interestingly, Roosevelt did not select well known powerful individuals to be part of his inner team.  He selected more for loyalty and those who were more adaptable to change.  He needed to be able to move quickly and not to have a team bogged down in lengthy debates centered on protecting egos and agendas.    

Faced with so many large and novel challenges, Roosevelt encouraged his team to take risks and experiment.   Goodwin describes his decision making style as “parts of a living process.”  He told one cabinet member, “We have to do the best we know how to do at the moment. If it doesn’t work out, we can modify it as we go along.”  In many organizations facing difficult times, leaders are tempted to make all the decisions or levy a heavy price if the decisions of others do not yield the best results.

Roosevelt managed to convince almost everyone that he had faith that their collective endeavors would produce the desired outcome. Goodwin writes,” His faith never floundered that if the people were taken into the confidence of their government and received a full and truthful statement of what was happening, they would choose the right course.”   The American people and his team within the government returned that faith with a high level of trust in their leader.   

In difficult times, trust between the leader and those he leads is the single most important currency. Trust can be hard to create and hard to maintain especially for a new leader in a turnaround situation.  The most important step in that process is the leader communicating he has faith in the people he leads.