As a leader, your most important commodity is trust. Every action you take, every word you say, every success you notice or ignore affects the trust others have in you.
Note: This is part of a series sharing my thoughts on leadership. Read the introduction here.
One thing that I like to try and do is distill a complex topic down to a single salient point. As I thought and thought about leadership, I decided that the most important aspect is trust. I want to explore how I landed on that, and what the implications are.
Leadership and following
In order to simplify leadership down to a single idea, we must first describe what we mean by leadership. My favorite definition comes from Niel Nickolaisen, our CIO at O.C. Tanner:
A leader is someone others choose to follow
When we consider whom to follow, there are logical and also emotional reasons at play. Logically, we seek assurance that choosing to follow someone will lead to positive outcomes. Emotionally, if we fear that our choice might cause us harm or bring great uncertainty, we are unlikely to pursue that option.
As we seek to become a leader, we have to realize that every action we take either increases trust in us or erodes it. When we cause uncertainty, those who might follow us will lose trust and will choose someone else. As trust wanes in us as a leader, we can only lead through positional authority. The only people following us then are those forced.
One of the simplest ways to earn trust is by demonstrating it in others. Too often, when we are placed in leadership roles in the workplace, we become insecure in ourselves and our ability to lead and influence others. We recognize that a result of good leadership is good output from those who report to us, and we narrowly focus on the end while ignoring the means. Ironically, this often drives us to micromanage or even redo work done by others in our quest for perfect results. This kind of behavior on our part may deliver short-term improvements, but as we overly control our people, we undermine our future success.
It is worth considering the different ways we can show trust or a lack of it to those we seek to lead. We may think that we trust our people, and not even realize that our actions communicate the opposite.
In a professional setting, one of the most common ways that leaders demonstrate a lack of trust is by requiring that work is done in a certain way. This may look like excessive check-ins, or stringent guidelines that spell out exactly how something must be accomplished. Naturally, there are times when exactitude is required, but most of the time, we can provide clear guidance of the outcomes that are desired, and leave up to those who will implement to determine the outputs necessary to achieve those outcomes.
Another common form of communicating a lack of trust is requiring that work happen in a specific location at specific hours. It is true that some activities are best performed in a face-to-face synchronous form. However, many professional activities, particularly those performed by an individual contributor, can be accomplished anywhere and at anytime. When we require that all work happen in the office during designated work hours, we effective communicate to our people that the time they are at their desk matters more than the work they do. We don’t trust them to get done what is needed in the right way, and so we have to monitor them constantly.
Trusting others is the right thing to do. In this way we honor the humanity of others and their right to learn and grow. They matter like we matter. Trusting them, and communicating that trust, is crucial to our development as leaders. This is also one of the best ways to develop the trust of others.
In addition to trusting others, there are a couple other key things we can do to help foster others’ trust in us: competence and care.
Most people yearn to follow someone who actually knows what they are doing and is good at it. As we develop competence as a leader, we become that person others choose to follow. In future articles, I will explore in more detail what competence as a leader looks like. For now, it is enough to say that focusing on improving in our job is a great way to help instill confidence in others that we are likely to succeed as a leader and help them succeed as they follow us.
Unfortunately, there are many brilliant jerks in the world, and especially in the workplace. These are people who may be extremely hard-working and competent, but have a negative influence on people around them. They care much more about results than they do about people, and this ironically often leads to poorer results in the end.
A good leader builds trust by genuinely caring about other people. When we encounter someone who is skilled and competent, and also who clearly sees us as a person who matters like they do, we are much more likely to have confidence in what they might tell us. Our fears of ulterior motives dissipate, and we can trust that they are not putting their own interests above ours. This frees us up to follow without reserve and to accept direct, even harsh feedback at times, which can help us improve at an exponential rate.
Trust is the most precious coin a leader possesses. It must be careful cultivated and consciously spent. Almost every action contributes to an increase or a decrease in the trust others have in us. This makes the biggest difference in whether people will choose to follow us, or will reluctantly do what we ask out of obligation.