Leadership: Vote for trust

It’s election month. Politicians beckon. But before spending your precious decision-making time on any individual or ideological consideration, ask yourself one question: who do you trust and why?
Trust, you see, is both the most critical and, sadly, most often neglected, component of effective leadership. trustworthy politician or political party might seem, as it so often is, like an oxymoron, but we are in desperate need of leaders we can trust or who might at least make an honest attempt to honour the spirit of the word.
Trust is, as it so often has been, in short global supply. Its scarcity is at the heart of our many worldly woes. Leadership writer Stephen Covey suggested in his book The Speed of Trust that the removal of trust can “destroy the most powerful government, the most successful business, the most thriving economy, the most influential leadership, the greatest friendship, the strongest character, and the deepest love”.
Equally, if developed and leveraged, trust can create “unparalleled success and prosperity in every dimension of life”. For hardnosed organisational executives and political pragmatists inclined to dismiss trust as “soft and elusive” quality that individuals might or might not have, Covey argued that trust is instead “pragmatic, tangible and actionable asset” that can be created to achieve faster results.
We are consistently exposed to the corrosive effects of corporate, political and financial scandals, terrorist threats and acts, office politics and broken relationships, but restoring trust is, said Covey, “vital to our personal and interpersonal well-being; it is the key leadership competency of the new global economy. Nothing is as fast as the speed of trust and, trust is something you can do something about.”
What is trust? Former General Electric chief executive Jack Welsh suggested: “You know it when you feel it.” Fair enough, but that probably works best in close encounter evaluations. Mostly trust means confidence. The opposite – distrust – is suspicion. We are confident about the integrity and abilities of those we trust, and suspicious of the same qualities and attributes of those we don’t.
Unfortunately, Victoria University’s recent research into the attitudes of 6000 Kiwis on raft of social issues showed that almost 70 percent of us distrust politicians. On the other hand, we don’t, at least not yet, suffer the political extremism of countries like the United States, where building trust or finding trustworthy individuals is currently complex in the extreme.
And that’s important because building trust, an art we seldom work at and pay little mind to unless things go wrong, is globally and locally important. Trust is the cement needed to construct an answer to what Albert Einstein once called the “most important question” human beings can ask themselves: “Is the world friendly or unfriendly place? The answer to that question determines whether they live their life building bridges or building walls,” he said. We need bridge builders.
Political and organisational leaders should focus on building trust. Granted it takes time and can be undone in moment. Our short-term approach to all things political doesn’t help. But building reservoir of trust is critical to effectively tackling and solving the complex matrix of economic and social problems confronting New Zealand. And because time is of the essence, the case for trust is even more compelling.
Look at the lesson of the US. The “great American dream” has become the world’s worst nightmare. Its leaders find it increasingly difficult to build trust, because they have acted, and continue to act, in untrustworthy ways. With all that creative and innovative potential, the smartest nation on earth now looks to be the silliest. Its political leadership is deadlocked, its commercial and financial leadership reviled and it cannot employ or properly care for its people. “In God we trust” seems hardly adequate.
There are many reasons for individuals to be distrustful of their leaders. But there is also evidence to show that trust can be built and re-built. Corporate leaders have shown the way many times. Think, for example, of the job Air New Zealand’s leaders have done since the airline jettisoned Brierley Investments. Or consider what happened in Northern Ireland once degree of trust took shoot.
Having persuaded individuals to trust them, leaders must then take the next most critical step and not abuse the gift. That can be the trickiest trick. Endorsement is not licence.
Finally, from Financial Times editorial of some years ago: “Executives tempted to take shortcuts should remember the dictum of Confucius that good government needs weapons, food and trust. If the ruler cannot hold all three, he should give up weapons first and food next. Trust should be guarded to the end, because without trust, we cannot stand.” M

Reg Birchfield is NZ Management’s consulting editor and writer-at large. [email protected]

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