Trump Transition

What football could teach Obama (and Trump) about success

President-elect Donald Trump at a press conference in Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Fla., On December 21, 2016.

President-elect Donald Trump at a press conference in Mar-a-Lago, Palm Beach, Fla., On December 21, 2016.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

We have great clarity regarding whether a football coach led his team to a successful year or not.  That is one of the attractions of sports --- there is a winner and a loser. We either put the ball in the end zone or we didn't. 

Success is clear. No football coach stands at the podium after they scored fewer points than their opponent and tries to convince us that they actually won. 

For our politicians, however, it is the exact opposite. Success is based upon your perspective.  Winners are determined by whomever talks the loudest and gets the most media coverage. That is precisely how politicians want it.  If it's not clear whether they succeeded or not, then they can try to convince us through speeches about shiny objects. 

In just a few weeks the tenure of the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, will come to a close. During these closing weeks, President Obama will endeavor to write the first review of history, making the argument that his 8 years in office were a success.   

President Obama took office and, as he is quick to point out, inherited an unemployment level of 7.8 percent.  Today it sits at 4.9 percent. That's a number that is appreciably and measurably improved.  Does that represent success?  Or does the fact that the labor participation rate (the percentage of people who are either working or actively looking for work) is just 62 percent -- a nearly 40 year low -- demonstrate failure?

President Obama will leave office with the Dow Jones at nearly 20,000. An historic high. Does that make his presidency a success? Or is it a failure that he leaves office with $20 trillion in debt?  President Obama more than doubled the national debt under his leadership -- adding more than his 43 predecessors combined. Success or failure?

Does ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq make the president's tenure a success?  Or is the fact that we've seen terror attacks in cities across America (Orlando, San Bernardino, New York) and around the world (Paris, Nice, Brussels) and the destruction of Syria and the emboldenment of Iran, North Korea and Russia mean we are less safe?

Perhaps President Obama's proudest moment of his time in office, was the adoption of the Affordable Care Act (aka ObamaCare), ostensibly providing health care insurance for all Americans, as the president argued it would. Does the passage of that signature legislation make it a success?  Or is the fact that, according to most estimates, between 25 -30 million Americans still don't have health insurance -- make it a failure?  Or, is it a failure that the typical American family's health insurance plan's cost has increased at about 21 percent a year? Or is it a failure that out of pocket expenses -- before that health insurance kicks in -- have doubled what they were ten years ago?

Is it a success that the economy is no longer in a tailspin as it was when President Obama took office, and that 7 of his 8 years saw positive growth in the Gross Domestic Product (the number that measures the size of the American economy)? Or is it a failure that that growth only averaged 1.6 percent and that his is the first presidency in American history to not create a single year of 3 percent economic growth?

Does it represent success that more than half the American people view President Obama in a favorable light (55 percent) or is it a failure that, according to Gallup, that for the first time in our nation's history more people believe that the number one problem facing America is government itself?

The point of all this is that no one should be able to cherry pick the metrics that make their argument. 

President Obama's record isn't a failure nor a success on all of the above issues, it simply depends upon your perspective. The problem today is that the all-important perspective is determined literally by the person who talks the loudest.  

Success is delivered when a leader clearly communicates what they are going to achieve (President Kennedy declaring that we would send a man to the moon and back safely by the end of the decade) and then actually delivering upon it. 

Every single Sunday we watch 300 pound grown men hug one another on national television because they hauled a piece of leather across a chalk line. 

There is clarity of success, and celebration of failure, that ensures.  A head football coach doesn't stand at a podium and try to convince us the team they led had a good Sunday because they didn't have any fumbles, averaged more yards per carry, and had no players injured -- when they lost the game by a score of 41-10. 

As President Obama leaves office that clarity of success is undeterminable no matter how passionately he cherry picks the results he prefers, or how robustly his detractors select those metrics that demonstrate failure.

The lesson in all of this is that soon to be President Trump will have two opportunities in the next two months to clearly communicate what success looks like.  At his inauguration on January 20 and at his appearance before a Joint Session of Congress soon after. 

Imagine what it might look like if President Trump clearly communicated five measurable objectives, the timeframe he would deliver them, and a promise that if he fails to deliver on at least four of those objectives, then he wouldn't seek re-election.

That is putting a stake in the ground. That is knowing where the end zone is.  That is how you get a team behind you to lead the nation and focus on what really matters to the American people. 

If President-elect Trump does this, then 8 years from now, we won't have to listen to an outgoing president try to convince us he was successful, merely by cherry picking the results that best make his argument, and ignoring those that clearly indicate that he did not. 

Mark Aesch is CEO of TransPro, a performance management consultancy focused on helping transportation organizations to perform at higher levels of efficiency with strategic planning, customer satisfaction survey and reporting services, and executive leadership coaching. Mr. Aesch is a former District Director for U.S. Representative Bill Paxon, former CEO of the Rochester, NY Transportation Authority, and former Senior Advisor for the City of Detroit. He is also the author of two best-selling business books Driving Excellence (2011) and Saving America (June 2016). Follow him on Twitter, @MarkAesch.