In April 1976 President Gerald Ford visited the Alamo in San Antonio. He was in a fight for his party’s nomination for president, which is never good for a sitting president. At the Alamo, the story goes, Ford was given a plate of tamales. He grabbed one and bit into it. Without removing the husk. The President of the United States didn’t know how to eat a tamale. A server got to the president, grabbed the tamale, removed the husk, and gave it back to him. But the damage was done. One of the great leadership gaffes in American political history had been committed. Ford, who already had a reputation for being awkward, now appeared to be out of touch with Latinos. He narrowly won the primary, but lost the 1976 presidential election. He did not do well with Latino voters. And I’m guessing this gaffe hurt him with other demographics as well. In leadership it is often our attention to detail that demonstrates how much we care. I
have no idea how concerned President Ford was with issues of concern to Latino voters, but in that moment in 1976 he appeared unconcerned. That’s all it took. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. On the day of the incident he also gave a speech to 18,000 people. I have no idea what the speech was about. But I’ve heard about the tamale incident dozens of times. Undoubtedly other issues also led to his defeat in 1976, but the “tamale incident” is what everyone remembers. In the same way, people remember if you remember their names. People remember if you reply to their phone calls and emails promptly. People remember if you smile and give them your full attention. Frankly, I forget to shuck the proverbial tamale all the time, and this story is an important reminder to me. All of the techniques and strategies learned in leadership classes are rendered meaningless if we don’t get the little stuff right. That’s true in business, in ministry, even in our families. If we’re not authentic and honest, no one cares what our “speech” was about. If we don’t give our attention the people in front of us, no one cares about our bold visions and strategic plans. If we want to inspire people, we have to know what matters to them. If we want to lead people, they have to know we care about them and we’re not using them. That sort of attention to detail is the foundation upon which real leadership is built.