What’s Trust Got to Do With It?

by Ron Potter

Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s irrepressible dog, once lamented,

“It’s not easy being head beagle.”

And in the wake of recent moral meltdowns at both high and low levels of corporate America, Snoopy’s insight may be more on target now than ever before.

For those who still aspire to lead others well, however, the current leadership climate presents a great opportunity—especially for those who earnestly want to lead right. As never before—in all segments of society—we earnestly want to associate with people who are genuinely trustworthy.

Steve seemed to have it all. He was tough, smart, disciplined, quick on his feet, and an effective strategist. He worked hard and could match anybody’s résumé with an impressive list of business and personal skills. With all that Steve had going for him, why was he failing in his latest and greatest work assignment? Was there a way for him to pull out of his tailspin?

Image Source: The US Army, Creative Commons

Image Source: The US Army, Creative Commons

Before his success in business, Steve had been an Army Ranger. Listening to Steve was like listening to a Tom Clancy audio book, only this was the actual participant reminiscing in real time. Steve’s Ranger training had prepared him to withstand almost anything, including extreme pain, in order to execute a mission. This was one sharp, strong man—Rambo in a business suit. Part of Steve’s extensive Ranger training had included instruction in being a leader at any level of organizational structure. Steve understood both giving and taking orders. He knew how to take charge, size up the situation, and go after the objective.

As part of my consulting approach, I had tested the team Steve was a part of to assess leadership performance. I’ll never forget the afternoon I met with this man who was so discouraged that his whole demeanor drooped. Steve was desperately looking for understanding and some help to regain his footing. What had pierced the strength of this highly trained, combat-proven Ranger?

Steve’s discouragement resulted from feedback he had just received from his peers on his leadership style and how it was affecting his ability to lead, to be trusted, and to be a good team member. He thought his leadership practices were sound, but his peers and those who reported to him directly saw them as oppositional, competitive, and detrimental to the team’s ability to function successfully.

Steve saw himself as a good, competent leader. Before I showed up, Steve assumed he had made all the right moves, had all the right skills, and was doing just great, thank you! Now this devastating feedback from his team told him other-wise. He knew in his heart he had the right stuff, so what was wrong?

What Steve didn’t understand is that skill is only part of the equation. He did have many solid leadership attributes: He was committed and focused, had great integrity, and could endure difficulties. What Steve didn’t understand was that some of his behavior and attitudes were offensive to coworkers. It didn’t matter to them that he was an ex-Army Ranger and had great leadership qualities and a list of achievements to show for it. To them he seemed proud. Steve didn’t understand the difference between being proud of your accomplishments and being perceived as kind of a cocky know-it-all. His air of superiority kept others from feeling they could trust him. Once Steve began to exhibit a more humble attitude in response to his teammates’ feedback and became more attentive to their accomplishments and strengths, trust began to build.

Trust is at the heart of any honest relationship.
Quality leadership is vitally important today, and many people work hard to improve their leadership skills. But all the training and technical skills, as important as they are, will not create an enduring, trusted leader.
Regardless of where you have been and what you have done—or even if you have no experience at all—you can become a leader worthy of trust.

Share with us the leadership behaviors that have prevented you from trusting.

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