The Crisis of Trust: What Every Leader Must Do

It is the job of leaders to create trust between leader and led, between the institutions of governance and those who are governed.

It is the job of leaders to create trust between leader and led, between the institutions of governance and those who are governed. My comments on trust were recently published in FastCompany Magazine.  My friend, Payam Zamani, tech entrepreneur and CEO of OnePlanet also just published an article on the national crisis of trust and the danger of the decline of this nation. 

For fear of mixing business and politics I have been hesitant to speak out on the current crisis in this country, which is much larger than the Covid19 pandemic. It is the crisis that will determine whether this country (the U.S.) remains a great nation. We have been great, precisely because we have been open to immigration and because we have embraced alliances around the world, promoting democracy and human rights, the values of this country. We have, in the past been united around the core values that did make this country great – opportunity, equality, democracy and justice for all – but, greatness requires vigilance and now is the time for us all to be vigilant. 

Trust is the social glue that unites a cultures. All cultures are either in the process of integrating or disintegrating, creating cultural cohesion or dissension, and economic growth has proven to be correlated with high levels of trust and economic decline correlated with the absence of trust (see Francis Fukuyama’s book Trust). Trust is social capital and the World Bank has recognized the essential nature of building social capital to achieve economic development. The same is true within a corporation as it is in nations. High levels of internal trust result in high levels of creativity and problem solving. We create and expand in an environment of trust, and the reverse is true. We retreat when we fear the outside world, our competitors, and that retreat is followed by disintegration of brand equity. Leaders create trust and expansion; anti-leaders create fear and retreat.

Arnold Toynbee studied the rise and fall of 23 civilizations and among his conclusions was that great civilizations are never defeated by the external barbarians, but always by internal disintegration and what he called the “loss of self-determination.” They decline when they are at their most powerful and most wealthy, when they reach a “condition of ease.” 

This is also a failure of leadership. Leaders emerge from the culture but they also shape and give direction to the culture. The first job of leaders is to create unity of purpose, common cause, common challenge and unite people in shared effort. Leaders must define our ennobling purpose, and challenge us to arise to that purpose. Purpose creates unity. If we don’t select leaders who will do that we will continue to disintegrate and decline. When leaders spread distrust they are essentially engaged in an act of collective suicide. 

What can a leader do to build trust within his or her company (or country)?

  1. What is our worthy purpose? Why are we here? What will be our (or my) legacy when we are done? Defining our personal purpose and the purpose of the group of people whom we seek to lead is the essential cornerstone of leadership and growth. The President of the United States, like the president of a company, must define the purpose not only of their administration, but of the country at large. I always understood that our purpose was not only within, but was expansive – to promote democracy, free enterprise, human rights to the entire world. If we believe in these values we must speak up! We must promote them to the world and encourage countries and leaders who do the same. 
  2. Take Ownership of Performance: Can you image the president of a company openly disparaging his own company, disparaging the human resource department, the marketing or manufacturing and causing employees to not trust their own company? Impossible. He would be fired. The job of the president of a company or country is to make things work! It is a simple idea. But, a company president is judged by the performance of that company. To perform, all the pieces (engineering, marketing, etc.) must work together, united in both process and principles. Trust builds performance and distrust destroys performance. 
  3. Fact Based Transparency: Some leaders believe in their own words, their theories, more than they believe in facts. Great executives are obsessed with understanding the facts. They study, they read, they listen to others with more expertise in different subjects. They are good students first, good executives second. Then they openly share the data, good or bad, and confront reality with action. Sharing the data and explaining the data to employees in frank and honest terms. Particularly in this time of the pandemic crisis, every employee understands that their company is being impacted by disruptions in markets and supply chains. Share the data and be absolutely frank in explaining what the data is telling you and how you are responding. This creates trust and loyalty in followers. 
  4. Be absolutely humble! We don’t trust people who feel a need to congratulate themselves. Admit mistakes. You will gain respect for engaging in self-reflection. Arrogance is the enemy of learning and destroys trust. Humility is an attitude of learning that gains trust. 
  5. Talk Continuous Improvement: In this age every employee understands that there are no absolutes – no perfect process, no final destination in performance. Talk about the journey… where we have been and where we are going and what we are doing to get there. Employees want to know that their leaders are themselves engaged in continuous improvement. Be the model! If employees hear you talk about your efforts to continuously improve, they will trust you more and they will be motivated to engage in continuous improvement. 
  6. Give Credit to Others: Always share credit for any success with others. I want to be on your team if I see you sharing success with your team members. And, your team will then take responsibility for failures and for continued improvement. 

 I know the above comments have swung back and forth between business and larger societal issues. Principles that matter apply to leadership of self, company and country in almost identical ways. I tried, in my course on Transformational Leadership to capture the most important principles that I feel are essential for leaders who will build trust. It is the essence of leadership. 

Categories: : culture, leadership