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Trust - the currency of leadership


Here's a lesson I learned relatively late in my career - when it comes to leadership there is only one thing that truly matters - do you have the trust?

I had many misconceptions about the currency of leadership throughout the years. At first, I thought it was experience that you need, then I switched to skills, then it was empathy, authority, charisma... All these have a role to play, but the most important is trust.

Being a leader is incredibly difficult. You're ultimately responsible for the endeavour and for the people who are there with you on it. Sure you have authority to make decisions, but it's never full authority as people will only follow you if they trust you. Or fear you.

Fear is a strong motivator and yet in the long term, trust gets better results. Leaders who like to be followed need to get the trust of their people and vice versa, those who want to influence their leaders need to first gain their trust.

Two ways to earn the trust of a leader

There are multiple ways to earn the trust of a leader. It depends on the personality of a leader mostly. The two most common ways I saw working throughout my career are the following.

Do what you're told

Probably the easiest way to earn the trust of a control-minded leader is to do what your boss wants you to do. Like it or not, but being a classical "yes man" works. To a degree. Doing what you are told works when your leader gives you quality orders and takes responsibility for them. Unfortunately, there are plenty of "leaders" who micromanage their people and then throw them under the bus if their orders don't bring the expected results. They will blame the execution and their people to avoid responsibility.

However, that's a worst case. If you're lucky and your leaders are smart and not assholes - delivering on their expectations is a valid way to earn their trust. The tricky part here is to understand properly the expectations and the boundaries in which you can execute the task.

Take initiative

Another way to earn the trust of your leader is what is now called being a self-starter. Surely it's a buzzword but when done right - it could get you some serious trust points with your leadership.

Taking initiative is more challenging than just doing what you're told. It requires a lot of observation and emotional intelligence to recognise the problem no one dealing with and solve it in a meaningful way. Again, you need to clearly see the boundaries and recognise the problems worth solving for this method to work.

Done right, this method is the shortest way to gain the trust of your leaders and advance your career.

Two ways to earn trust as a leader

Now let's flip the coin and look at the other side of the leadership equation. How leaders could earn the trust of their people?

Be honest and give context

There's nothing worse for establishing trust than a deceiving, manipulative or secretive boss. Most people have pretty attuned bullshit meters and can distinguish when their leaders are being honest with them and when not. Even when leaders think they're being clever, "moderating" and "rationing" information they give to their people, not being honest will come to bite them.

On the other hand, a leader who is truthful and gives all available context - quickly gains the trust of their people. And with the full context, people could act with confidence, delivering novel, successful solutions. Moreover, people who are trusted by their leaders with truth and context feel included and respected, which only strengthens the relationship between leaders and their people.

Give credit and take the blame

That's really leadership 101 and yet so many wannabe or accidental leaders neglect this simple rule. But if you want to earn the trust of your people, you absolutely must give credit and take the blame. In all but very few exceptional situations. Only if your people acted maliciously, unlawfully or morally wrong - only then it's not your responsibility but theirs. However, you still should ask yourself if you did all you could to avoid such violations.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of leaders out there who are pressuring their people to deliver unrealistic results and therefore enabling bad behaviour.

In normal conditions, for your people to trust you they should be confident that you have their back. They need to know that if they give their best effort - you as a leader will recognise this, give credit where credit is due and take the fall to shield your people if need be. Combine this with honesty and you'll get the psychological safety that is a hallmark of high-performing teams.

What do you do with the trust you gained?

As a follower

When your leader trusts you - high performance and innovation can flourish. You can focus on trying novel ways of working to gain better results. You can also provide honest feedback to your leader to change the working ways and further increase productivity.

Moreover, if you have the trust - your input to the strategy of an organisation is taken seriously. Your experience with the job at hand influences not only your immediate team but the entire org through the support of your leader.

As a leader

When your people trust you and you trust them, you can stop worrying about operations and focus on the strategy. It's not only liberating but also necessary to get ahead of your competitors and receive better outcomes.

But maybe even more importantly, it's time to supercharge your investment into your team. As a trusting leader, you know the needs of your people and can focus on empowering them to be the best versions of their working selves.

Reiterating the obvious

Trust is essential for functional teams that want to consistently achieve above-average outcomes.
There are many ways to gain trust, but it's always a process that requires honesty and continuous hard work.

It's always one step forward, and five steps back when it comes to gaining or losing trust.
Finally, please give trust a chance and you'll see how much better everyone and everything can be with trust.

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