The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.
Booker T. Washington
It appears that more and more today trust is the currency of effective leadership.
Okay, here’s one I’ve been thinking about for quite a while – trust. For the record, I am using the word “trust” to mean trusting; that is, your willingness to extend trust to others. I am not using it in the sense of being trustworthy. While being trustworthy is desirable and absolutely critical from an authenticity and integrity perspective, that concept is for another blog.
Trust is the foundation that must be in place in order for the other key elements of self-actualization, including vulnerability and forgiveness, to exist. As discussed in previous blog posts, there seems to be an appalling lack of vulnerability and forgiveness in our lives today, and I believe that is because of our reluctance and unwillingness to trust others. And therein lies a profound disconnect; while we intellectually know that a full, daring, and “wholehearted life” (to quote Brené Brown) can be achieved only by trusting others, and that the majority of us thirst for that kind of existence, we emotionally cannot bring ourselves to actually trust others. Rather, we live our lives in a “trust-but-verify” mode, scanning, watching, and waiting to be betrayed. That mindset keeps us metaphorically “parched” for the life we want, unable to quench our sense of longing and quiet despair or to reach our highest potential.
Trust is defined as a “confident expectation of something; a reliance on the integrity and ability of another.” It is perhaps the most precious and fragile gift we can ever give to another person. You’ve probably heard the saying that it takes a lifetime to build trust, but it can be lost in an instant. Once lost it is very difficult to reestablish. Yes, it can be rebuilt but the analogy of a crumpled piece of paper is perhaps most helpful; you can straighten the sheet back out again over time, but even when it’s flat, it’s never quite the same.
Trusting occurs on two different but crucial levels: the level of self and the level of others. So far we have been discussing the level of others, but it actually begins at the level of self. Maslow found that all of his “self-actualizing” subjects shared one common characteristic: they trusted their judgment, gut, and instinct. They did not seek validation or approval from others; their “validation barometer” existed internally. Where does your barometer currently reside?
So, what does all of this mean for leadership? Recently, a group of executives was asked to list the three people they trusted the most. After parents, you typically heard about siblings and spouses, with an occasional “best friend.” In this example, no one named their “boss.” However, when this same group was asked to list the three people who had the greatest impact on their happiness, “boss” was listed in every instance. That’s quite a gap. When confronted with that statistic you may be tempted to refer to your boss in agreement, but I would encourage you to think about your coworkers and direct reports. How would they answer that question? Do you trust them, their ability, work ethic, and capability? Or, do you practice a “trust-but-verify” approach with them? You have a tremendous responsibility for their happiness – are they satisfied or parched?
In light of the Actualized Leader framework, this topic is especially challenging for Asserters, those with a high need for power. Asserters, of which I am one, are the classic, confident and decisive leaders with a high need for control. The late Harvard psychologist David McClelland referred to them as the engineers who build our skyscrapers, and the generals who fight our wars. While all of this is true, we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to fully embracing a wholehearted life. Our unwillingness to extend trust, experience vulnerability, and grant forgiveness maintains an illusion of safety and security. However, we often realize (sometimes too late) that the wall we’ve built becomes our cage, thwarting our ability to genuinely connect with others on an authentic level and to actualize our highest potential.
Everyone reading this blog has been betrayed. And, most of us, on some level, have betrayed others. So, we know it’s a risk to trust others. There are no guarantees, but consider what would become available to you if you had the courage to trust others. Retired Bank of America Chairman and CEO Hugh McColl told me that he made a conscious decision to trust others, even after being betrayed, during his time leading Bank of America. When I asked him why, he stated that working in an environment without trust would have been limiting and ultimately unfulfilling. When I responded that he still could have built the bank, and much of Charlotte, without trust, he replied that that was probably true, “… but what would have been the point?” I would challenge you to reflect on that insight and extend trust to someone who deserves a chance in your life. As Hemingway pointed out in the opening quote, you will either gain a friend or a lesson for life, but either way you will be the richer for it.
Image courtesy of Jeremy Doorten