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Jan Birchfield, Ph.D Headshot

Want to Be a Better Leader? Deepen Trust

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The foundation of leadership is trust. You can lead without trust if you base your leadership on fear. Arguably, this is coercion, not true leadership. How do you establish trust?

Building trust begins by examining your underlying intent. Followers will ascertain, often unconsciously, "Are you serving the mission of the organization or bolstering your ambition and ego?" It is rare that a leader serves purely for the sake of the organization. Most leaders will, on occasion, unconsciously subvert the needs of the organization for an outcome that is, at some level, self-serving. However, trust can be established without perfection in this regard. As long as you primarily put the needs of the organization before the needs of your ego, career or department, trust will emerge.

However, sometimes the intent of the leader is trusted, but the integrity of the leader is perceived as shaky, and this, ultimately undermines trust. In this context, integrity is defined as the quality or condition of wholeness. This is an internal state. Your intent may be to serve the mission of your organization. And yet you may not have the internal integrity to carry this out. As a result, trust is undermined.

Recently I was assessing Richard, a leader who was running a small subsidiary of a large corporation. He was described by his colleagues as transparent, authentic, and devoted to the company. His colleagues trusted his intent; they did not see him as self-serving, and spoke highly about his commitment to the organization. And yet, they did not fully trust him because some of his decisions -- important decisions -- were driven by an underlying need to maintain equilibrium within the organization at all costs. For example, reporting into Richard was a woman who was unable to handle the requirements of her job. Earlier in the year, she fought to have Richard promoted. She was loyal to him, and he to her. This loyalty became a blind spot. Instead of facing the truth about her performance, Richard rationalized his unwillingness to address it."Right now, people need to trust that I will give people a chance. So I will give her more time, to see if she can develop. This is what is best for the organization at this time." Yet, all of the evidence pointed towards the truth that keeping her in this position was hurting both her and the organization. Eventually Richard was able to see that his decision was not driven by a larger good but by his strong dislike of conflict and his loyalty to his colleague. Richard's intent was the right one. He did, in fact, want to serve the mission of the organization. And yet his blind spots created a "lack of integrity," leaving him susceptible to the all-too-human capacity to self-deceive. This is why self knowledge is so critical in leadership. Self-knowledge builds integrity, or the "condition of being internally whole or undivided."

Self knowledge is refined within the fire of clarity -- the ability to objectively perceive what is unfolding at any given moment, both within yourself and without. Clarity arises only in the present moment. We sometimes call this good judgement, discernment, or wisdom. Wisdom is different than knowledge. Knowledge is acquired through the intellect. Wisdom is seeing reality with clarity, a skill that is developed when you strengthen your capacity to be present moment-to-moment. Most of us are operating from a narrow, highly habituated repertoire of thought, perception, and emotion. This blocks our capacity to see life in a fresh way. Instead, we perceive what we have gotten into the habit of perceiving. Trust increases when your perceptual field is relatively free of habit. This is why the development of greater presence is such an important leadership skill.

Trust arises when you have the skills to perform your job, when your deepest intent is to serve the mission of the organization, when there is enough internal integrity, by and large, to carry out this intent, and when there is sufficient clarity to view the ongoing unfolding of everyday reality with objectivity. Leadership skills can easily be taught. Developing a strong foundation of leadership based on trust, however, is far more complex, fundamentally rooted in the development of the self.