Turning point (noun) – a point at which a decisive change takes place; critical point; crisis. 
There is a critical moment for any individual trying to establish leadership when they either gain or lose followers. I call it the leadership turning point. And I’ve coached many people through their leadership turning points.
This is true for any type of leader, whether it’s a CEO, an elected official, a teacher, or the acknowledged leader of the free world. This turning point is generally palpable for everyone present when the moment happens, whether it is vocalized or only evidenced through the behavior that follows that critical moment.
I want to share two examples of critical turning points to drive home the importance of this turning point for leaders. One example is pulled from current events while the other is from the anecdotal history of yours truly.
Example 1: How President Obama Missed an Opportunity for Leadership on Syria (and How Putin Looked Like a Genius)
[Forget politics. I am using this example not to take sides politically, but to analyze the leadership implications so we can all learn. There are more than enough partisan political blogs in America today.]
Obama’s mistake is that he is, and has been, single-mindedly political in his approach to addressing our country’s issues and challenges. Obama called out Syria for crossing a red line, (not just our line but a global line) in their use of chemical weapons. Then, he called on Congress to own the issue, so he could defer blame if and when a resolution on Syria did not pass. In essence, he tried to make it a Republican issue by taking a shot at bravado rather than making a decisive, specific decision.
Enter Putin, another man with a single-minded focus, who saw an opening to influence the turning point in his favor in two different events which he parlays into brilliant PR and power moves.
- First, he handled the Snowden incident by making his gesture seem so grand, that it weakened Obama’s stature. Putin said: “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: he must stop his activities aimed at inflicting damage to our American partners, no matter how strange it may sound on my lips.” (Read more on Politico)
- Secondly, he turned the Syrian chemical weapons incident into a win for Russia and its’ allies. (Keep in mind that Russia is an ally of both Syria and Iran, and Iran is steeped in Syria’s war). The US has decidedly not backed the people fighting Assad for a number of lose/lose reasons. When Putin offered to safeguard the Syrian chemical weapons supply by putting it under international control on the condition that the US takes a Syrian strike off the table, he saves the day again.
So what does all this really mean? When there is another chemical weapons attack in Syria, which there will be, the attack can be blamed on the rebels. Oh and by the way, Putin announced on the same day (and almost in the same breath) that he would ship missile systems to Iran and build a second nuclear reactor in that country. And Obama, now rescued twice by the wily Putin, is rendered powerless and weakened again.
When a leader is not definitive, but rather takes shots at bravado, he or she is left open to a position of weakness. These shots at bravado have left America a less safe place. And can Israel trust the US? What will hold them back from a pre-emptive strike on Iran now that their key backer in security is weakened?
In contrast, let’s look at:
Example 2: How Mr. Faraldo* Nailed It in 9th Grade PE Class
I’ll never forget my first day of PE my freshman year. Mr. Faraldo had a captive audience for a moment, and a room full of testosterone. He began explaining, in his tough-guy way, how it was going to be in PE…how the class would run, the showers, the locker room, etc. His speech was soon interrupted by a wisecracking freshman, eager to make a good impression on his friends. Let’s call him Vinny. Vinny cracked a joke quietly, causing ripples of laughter around him. Mr. Faraldo, who did not like being interrupted, told Vinny very firmly, “When I talk, you listen.”
Moments later, in a clear challenge to Mr. Faraldo’s power and authority, Vinny cracks another joke. Calmly, but firmly and very specifically, Mr. Faraldo said,
“Vinny, you didn’t do so well with my last set of instructions, so let me be clear. If you interrupt me again, I am going to walk up these bleachers to get you, bring you right down to this very spot where I’m standing, and stick this whistle into your ear.”
So when Vinny made the poor choice of cracking yet another joke, Mr. Faraldo didn’t yell and he didn’t say a word. He confidently walked up the bleachers through a sea of quickly parting freshman, grabbed Vinny by the belt and carried him down to the spot where he had just been standing, and put the whistle in his ear, just as he said he would do. No bravado.
The entire class applauded.
Mr. Faraldo understood the turning point of his leadership position with his students. And in doing so, he earned the respect and attention of his Freshman PE class for the year, and well beyond.
What is the Take-Away for Leaders? How Do You Own Your Turning Point?
To be the leader and the authority, you must:
- Command respect, don’t ask for it
- Be specific, not sketchy
- Say what you are going to do, then do what you said you would, no bravado
The US leadership is being tested, and we are losing. Empty threats weaken us. They harm our security and those of our allies.
[And I reiterate: I am using this example not to take sides politically, but to analyze the leadership implications so we can all learn. There are more than enough partisan political blogs in America today.]
*Though a true story, I have changed the PE teacher’s name.
 Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2013.