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Why Leadership Needs Trust

Scott Morrison was voted out of the Prime Minister’s office because enough people did not trust him. So too was Donald Trump. Without trust, leadership cannot be properly exercised in a democratic society. Surprisingly, this is ultimately also true in totalitarian and autocratic settings. For any leader who aspires to bigger things, understanding the role of trust is crucial if you are to be successful over the long run.

It’s my experience working with leaders and groups around the world that the topic of trust must appear in any serious examination of leadership. That’s because the leader-follower relationship is a contract underpinned by trust, and it’s this contract that allows our societies to work the way they do.

The basic leader-follower contract in our society is based on an exchange. The follower authorises the leader to exercise power over certain aspects of their lives, and in return the leader provides a service that the follower wants and values. So, it's an exchange of power for service.

Written large, this is what happens between citizens and governments. We, the people, authorise our national and state leaders to make laws that govern our daily lives, and regulate the society within which we live. In return we expect our government leaders to provide a stable, safe and prosperous system in which we can live and work.

Even in the workplace this contract exists. The employee gives their employer the power to direct their actions for several hours a day. In return the boss provides a service such as allocation of interesting or meaningful work, payment of wages, provision of development opportunities and so on.

We invest our time, energy and emotions into leaders who appear capable and interested in giving us what we desire. Whether that’s a vision for a better life or protection from our greatest fears, when we vest in them, we give them power over us, and in return we expect them to fulfil their part of the contract.

In many ways, the leader-follower contract is mutually self-serving. The leader gets support from others to do what they want or need to do. The follower gets their needs met.

So long as we each trust each other to fulfil our part of the bargain, we are usually happy to keep renewing the leader-follower contract.

Although, the contract with our leaders can always be rescinded. If we lose trust in our leaders' competence or their intentions, we can rescind the contract and retract the authority over us that we have given them. In democratic countries we do this every few years by holding elections. It's a relatively peaceful way to render our judgement on the performance of our current batch of leaders. If they are not fulfilling the contract to our satisfaction, we simply vote out the old leaders, and vote in some new leaders in which we have a higher level of trust, and give them a go for a while.

The leader-follower contract can also be torn up in non-democratic countries, although the process can end up being more violent and dangerous. We see this happening in Iran. Increasing protests against the regime. People not following the orders of authorities - the very leaders they had previously empowered to direct their lives. This may very well end up in revolution and an uprising of the people where they rip up the leader-follower contract. This has happened many times in human civilization with the French Revolution and American Revolution as some of the best known examples. It has also happened in more recent times in places like Egypt, Sudan, Serbia, Syria, and even Ukraine.

The story of the Christmas Revolution in Romania in the winter of 1989 is especially instructive in what happens when trust is lost in leadership. It was a very public moment the leader-follower contract we rescinded - and it was caught on tape

When Romania seceded from the Soviet bloc in 1964, it paved the way for Nicolae Ceausescu to become the country's leader. For the next two decades his communist regime ruled in Romania.

Initially Ceausescu was applauded by his people as the repressive rule of the Soviets was relaxed. However, as is often the case when leaders are in power for too long, things turn bad for the people. Endemic corruption, violent repression of people by the security police, and rapidly declining living standards lead to a series of protests around the country.

On December 17 the protests escalated into a particularly bloody clash between protestors and the authorities in the town of Timosara. Nicolae Ceausescu could see that he needed to quell the dissent, reassert his authority and regain control. So he organised a highly choreographed public speech in the main square of the capital Bucharest four days later.

On December 21, the day of his speech, the square was full of tens of thousands of people as the event was televised live around the country. Ceausescu stood on a balcony with his wife Elena, who was deputy leader, as well as other senior party figures and began to speak.

A few minutes into the speech a low noise was captured by the TV cameras, and slowly grew in volume. After a while the sound became more distinct and discernable. It was the crowd shouting, yelling and booing.

Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu can be heard over the TV microphones. They are confused and uncertain what is going on. They implore the crowd to be quiet, but they are ignored. At this exact moment, they are losing their grip on power. The people no longer trust them, and they are losing their authority to lead. The leader-follower contract is being torn up.

It’s a stunning moment, captured on live television and broadcast to the nation. Immediately afterwards protests erupted around the country. The military rank and file deserted the regime and swapped sides. The Ceausescus fled but were captured, trialled and executed for their crimes.

Your day job may not involve leading a whole country, but nonetheless, if your day job involves leadership, it is still dependent on trust. If people are unwilling to follow you, how can you lead?

This is why it is so critical that good leaders consciously build trust, and will go to great lengths to ensure that they don’t erode it. Trust is a valuable commodity that once lost, is very difficult to get back.

Here are some simple but powerful tips to build and maintain trust in your leadership:

Pay attention to how you show up: Your trustworthiness is assessed in milliseconds. If you appear to be uninterested in others or their needs, you risk being judged as self-serving. The stakes are high with first impressions because a negative assessment of your intentions can be difficult to reverse over time. In other words, you may not get a second chance to make a first impression.

Be authentic: Allow the real you to show up. When people feel that they know the real you, warts and all, they can trust who you are. And make more generous interpretations of your intent.

Be open and honest: Give people the full picture. Share all of the news whether it's good, bad or ugly. If you try to hide or sugarcoat anything, their bullshit detector will pick up on it.

Show integrity: Do what you say you will do. Deliver on promises. Don't make commitments you can’t keep.


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