Trust and Credibility.
If you search the use of those two words over the last two weeks, you will be overwhelmed by how they have infused, informed and inflamed the conversations about the Syrian chemical weapons conundrum.
While debating current affairs and the politics of same used to be a hallmark of a refined culture, doing so today seems to foment rants or chase people into corners, as if broaching political discourse in polite company is as déclassé as burping loudly at a black tie dinner.
Still, if we can usher the more polarizing sentiments to a quiet corner for now, a more careful look at the events of the past two weeks exposes some stress cracks in models of leadership in a changing world, as well as affirming some leadership principles that are too easily diminished or forgotten in the press of the moment.
First, what has changed in trust and credibility:
- The decline of institutional authority and power. The ability to marshal and command action from a pedestal has nearly vanished. Edelman’s annual credibility survey has long tracked the erosion of institutional influence, including—notably—that of business as well as political leaders. The proliferation of social media has licensed people in every walk of life to a profound sense—misguided as it may be many times—that they have as much command of information as do leaders. (Sadly, interviews with some elected representatives bear that out.) However, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. Words of CEOs, just like that of Commanders-in-Chief, are subject to immediate and often piercing scrutiny.
- The diffusion of power and influence. The ability to essentially “flash mob” those who share your sentiments and exert pressure on political and social systems has been on often bloody display around the world, and particularly in the social media and cable media channels. As well, political machines of either party no longer can hold members at bay when their voice is given equal time and disproportionate weight in a content-hungry cable news world. At least for passing moments, the public at large tends to insist on “owning” matters of state that were heretofore left to the custodians of our political system. Twitter and Facebook are the new town hall meeting, and your voice is only one among many. For leaders to move the masses requires a keen ability to appeal to those interests and give them a stake in the outcome.
- Stuff is more complex. As much as we yearn for the clarity of labeling the “good guys and the bad guys” (even if the latter is easily assigned to someone who would melt the lungs of children with chemical weapons), the connected world is far more nuanced and layered than before. It is no longer merely power over evil, any more than democracy can salve decades of sectarian brutality. In business, category dominance or the power of brand alone can no longer drive the market to your door.
- It really is all about “us.” As George Carlin once wryly observed, magazines over decades evolved from Life to People to Us to Self, mirroring a narrowing personalization of our lives. We are hollow-eyed weary of seeing wounded warriors wheeling down our sidewalks, especially when they are people we know and love personally. There is a convenient distance and opacity between us and the bodies piled up in the Damascus hospitals. We care, but not enough to bear a price at home. Leaders can rally their forces, but not as often and not without translating the mission into something of—sadly, perhaps—more present and personal benefit.
What will never change about trust and credibility:
- Relationships matter. The savvy to nurture relationships and build goodwill capital is so easily forgotten at a time when we so readily trade effectiveness for efficiency, when so many of our interactions are transactional and expedient. When we fail to make those investments in the good times, the account is lacking funds when we need to draw from it the most. I know of one CEO who has spent his entire career developing relationships for no apparent purpose other than to simply do so. He now reaps a rich harvest of friendships and will never be without help if the time ever comes.
- Context and competence matters. Seeing the bigger picture, being able to anticipate and articulate the next steps, showing how one action fits in with another – and instilling confidence that the goals can be achieved – give people a framework, a way to box all this up and carry it themselves.
- Be a clear voice of courage. Even amid the complexity, the ability to rise above our anxieties, state our case and show our personal resolve toward it speaks deeply to people. We are unnerved when we learn the earth wobbles even a bit on its axis. When we are willing to take a risk, when we can perform even amid our weaknesses or fears, it inspires others to do the same.
- Take the blame, but never the credit. The model of servant leader assumes you are in a position to give, to draw from a deep reserve, to pour yourself into others and into a purpose. Whenever we too easily accept accolades for ourselves (or even worse, seek out opportunities to do so), we rob from the people who we are asking to believe in us. When we blame others, we appear small, likely because we are.
- Trust covers all. We may weigh facts, but we act on beliefs. We may examine information, but what propels us to action is our emotions – fear, love, hope among them. Trust, as I explored in a recent blog, is a perplexing and often mysterious condition, at once durable and delicate. When you understand how to build trust, when you make it a mainstay of your daily work as a leader, you understand the very human connection that allows people to put even their lives in your hands.