Years ago, a mentor of mine offered a leadership perspective that has resonated with me since, stating:

“Soldiers will inherently ask three questions of you when you assume role as their leader:

  1. Can I trust you?
  2. Do you care about me?
  3. Are you committed to excellence?”

While these questions may never be outright asked at some leader “sensing session,” I truly believe these are the issues on peoples’ minds when they are new to joining our team or when we assume a formal leadership role over them. And leaders need to think on how we are deliberately attending to these matters for our people – especially how we are earning their trust.

Trust is a complex, but critical topic for leadership. I cannot merely hand you a piece of paper listing out the “10-steps to earning your peoples’ trust.” But it’s essential for building and sustaining high-performing teams. It’s a topic that leaders need to consistently keep on their minds.

This mini-blog series explores a few key ideas on the matter of leadership and trust, particularly on effective ways I’ve come to view trust and aim to earn it with the people and teams I serve in.

Why Trust Matters

In communicating the importance of trust and why leaders really should care about it this much, I have consolidated it into three main points. For me, these are the perspectives that help me remain committed to valuing, earning, and sustaining peoples’ trust.

People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision. This idea shared by John Maxwell is an important reality for leaders. While leaders never intend to make anything about us, we must recognize that people won’t trust or buy into the vision if they don’t trust or buy into the person communicating the vision. We must be a credible source if we are to make the vision a reality.

Trust is the highest form of human motivation. This comes from Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He continues on to say that it (trust) brings out the very best in people – and I fully agree. It’s the difference between externally and internally motivated people. Externally motivated people may work hard and get exceptional results, but it is all driven by selfish intentions on what they personally get out of it (compensation like money, status or title, perks, and recognition). But that motivation cannot compare to internally driven people who believe in the team’s purpose and have the full faith and trust of their leaders; their hearts are truly in it when they do. As a leader, we aspire to get all people to willfully commit to who we are, what we do, and why we do it; to believe in those things requires they trust in those things and the people that are leading them through it.

Trust is the currency of leadership. Leaders can certainly leverage the authority granted to them (rank, title, reward or punishment power) to ensure people on their team comply. We can drive the team to achieve desired results that way, of course. The issue, though, is this creates short-term results and is not a sustainable model. People will only comply for so long without any sense of inspiration and belonging on the team. By earning trust, leaders inspire people to choose to commit to them and the team. Leaders do this by leveraging influence (instead of authority) through behaviors like caring for people and pouring into them, communicating perspective, and providing the team clarity of purpose and direction. This is a much more suitable and sustainable model for team success.

How We Can Think About Trust as Leaders

So yes, earning trust as a leader is important. But the next challenge is how do we conceptualize the process of earning, maintaining, and (hopefully not) losing our peoples’ trust?

A common model represents peoples’ trust in a leader like a bank account, where leaders aim to make consistent deposits through trust-earning behaviors. The goal is to maintain a positive balance, ensuring the trust-demanding withdrawals remain below that of our trust-earning deposits.

I think this can be a helpful model for leaders to structure their thinking on the process of earning, maintaining, and/or losing trust. However, I think there is another model worth considering, which better articulates the extremely sensitive nature of leadership and trust. In his book, Herding Tigers, Henry Todd asserts:

“Trust is not stored up like money in a bank account, where if you spend some a little bit foolishly, you still have some left in the account. It’s more like a water balloon. You can fill up the balloon over time, but if you puncture it once, even with a tiny hole, you lose all of the water. Similarly, you typically don’t lose trust in only one area. If you prove yourself to be untrustworthy in one situation, people tend to generalize that lack of trustworthiness to other areas as well.”

I think that the water balloon model can better challenge and inspire leaders to be more deliberate about trust within the team by recognizing the sensitive challenges tied to it.

Upcoming in the Trust Series

I hope that this brief introduction helps us recognize the importance of trust as leaders – the “why” – and how we can holistically conceptualize the process and challenges of this critical, but extremely complex leadership topic. In the next two parts of the series, we will address the “what” by outlining the three C’s of trust and the tactics on “how” we earn others’ trust. Ultimately, I intend that this short series can help improve our abilities to build highly cohesive, sustainable, high-performing teams.

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