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Leadership and Broken Trust

Leadership and Broken Trust

Over the years I’ve heard the following statement on more than a few occasions; “I don’t have to trust him/her, I just have to work with them.” My question is this; why would you want to work with someone you cannot trust? I never cease to be amazed at the great number of leaders who believe they can operate effectively in the absence of trust. Let me make this as clear as I can – you cannot build a culture of leadership where trust is not valued, respected, and required.

My advice on trust is rather simple – if you have someone on your team you don’t trust, find a way to develop trust or replace them with someone with whom you can establish trust. Trust is far too vital to the health of an organization to be trivialized. Trust is not a commodity. Trust is not something to be dismissed as useless or irrelevant. Trust is the cornerstone of leadership. Without trust being both extended and received, leaders, teams, and ultimately organizations will fail.

True wisdom is not fleeting, and therefore the proof of real wisdom is found in its ability to stand the test of time. The phrase “A house divided against itself cannot stand” is most commonly referred to as a quote from a speech given by Abraham Lincoln. However the statement dates back much further in time to words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. I make reference to this truism only to validate the importance of trust and alignment in the context of leadership and teamwork. Trust must be both implicitly and explicitly present for leadership to be effective and for teams to thrive. As the statement above proves, this concept has been known to be true for centuries.

Time for a reality check, and here’s where things get a little tougher – there are only a few certainties in life, and sadly, having the trust you’ve placed in someone be abused is one of them. Moreover, either intentionally or unintentionally we have all broken trust with others at some point in our lives. We know how it feels to be on both sides of the equation – betrayal hurts, it’s not fair, it can create bitterness and resentment, it has huge ripple effects, it can rock your world. All of this said, wise people learn from their own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others. They especially use the most tragic of circumstances as teachable moments and learning opportunities. The issue isn’t whether or not you’ve made errors in judgment, or whether you’ve been wronged by others – we all have. The question is are you capable of doing the right thing so that you can learn, grow, develop, bridge gaps, and move foreword?

When it comes to the issue of broken trust there are really only three options: 1.) Repair it – understand why a breach occurred, find common ground, and gain/give assurances it won’t happen again; 2.) decide to live with a fractured relationship where trust is absent, or: 3.) decide to end the relationship. Leadership isn’t about being right, it’s about doing the right thing. Where this concept really gets put to the test is after YOU have made a mistake. I’ve always said the true test of a leader is what he/she does in the moments immediately after they realize they are wrong.

We need to keep in mind that all people make mistakes, and that mistakes alone don’t necessarily make you evil, they just make you human. That said, human nature is to be much quicker with forgiving ourselves than forgiving others. I’m not suggesting leaders should forgive all mistakes, but if leaders forgive no mistakes then people will cease taking risks, they won’t give their real opinions, and eventually they’ll stop making decisions. Be a leader who leads – not one who governs by creating a culture of fear.

While it is much easier to avoid disaster than it is to recover from it, perhaps the most important lesson is it’s not the mistake you make, but what you do with your life after the fact – will your mistakes define you as a failure and disgrace, or will they serve as the impetus to correct your thinking and actions such that you redefine yourself to become a better and more trustworthy human being? Don’t fear mistakes – fear not having the courage to make them. Leaders should be far more concerned with being wrong than they are being proven wrong.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on today’s post by leaving a comment below.

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18 Comments

    Elizabeth Traub

    February 21, 2012 at 11:34 am

    Good thoughts today.  I basically decide who I can trust based on intentions. I have a lot of grace when it’s clear that broken trust was unintentional, and the repair becomes a great teaching moment.  Intentionally breaking of trust yields caution, and replacement.

    Lyn Boyer

    February 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    Mike, Thank you for the very thoughtful and important ideas. Trust is so often forgotten, but without trust businesses, families and organizations fail. Your article reminded me of one I wrote in October on Forgiveness http://bit.ly/qdgIsO, which discusses why leaders must consider what forgiveness does for them and their organizations. You are right- we have three options when trust is broken. Forgiveness may be the hardest one, but sometimes it is the right thing to do. 
    I particularly liked your statement: Don’t fear mistakes- fear not having the courage to make them. So many great ideas in a short article. 

      Mike Myatt

      February 22, 2012 at 11:28 am

      Thanks for the kind words Lyn. Thanks also for sharing your link. 

    Anonymous

    February 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    Hi Mike.  I certainly agree with your comments.  It is interesting how your posts force me to look at my personal behavior and of those around me.  I did loose trust in a recent CEO who was unable to accept responsibility.  Staff were divided into two camp (1) those who didn’t trust the CEO coping by avoiding the CEO, or (2) those who agreed with everything said by the CEO enjoying favored relationships with the CEO.  The outcomes were exactly as you stated.

      Mike Myatt

      February 22, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      Thanks Charles – you might also enjoy the following post which touches on the issue of leaders not accepting responsibility: http://hub.n2growth.com/leadership-is-not-dodgeball 

    Anonymous

    February 24, 2012 at 4:43 am

    There are certain things you
    do not realize until you read them, and through your article I have come to
    realize those few but interesting .

    I like the part” Trust
    is not a commodity. Trust is not something to be dismissed as useless or
    irrelevant. Trust is the cornerstone of leadership.”
    Yes it is ultimately true though we work 100% if there is no trust you loose
    the interest of work

    Thanks once again!!

    Scott

    February 25, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Mike, your comment about the “true test of a leader” really struck a cord with me.  It is spot on!  There have been times when I screwed up and felt so bad about the decision or action, that I called the other party to reverse it.  I admitted I made a mistake and moved on.  The key is not to punish yourself for mistakes but to correct them immediately.  

    Thanks for sharing and have a great weekend.

      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2012 at 10:58 am

      The true test of a leader is not how he/she deals with things when they’re correct, but how they handle things after realizing they were wrong. Thanks Scott.  

    Joe Lalonde

    February 27, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Great post Mike! I’ve always wondered the same thing. Whether it be in an employee, governmental position, or elsewhere. If their spouse or friends can’t trust them, how can I trust them?

      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2012 at 10:54 am

      Hi Joe: If their spouse or friends can’t trust them, neither can you. If someone will cheat on their spouse, they’ll cheat on you. If someone will throw their friends under the bus, they won’t hesitate to push you off the curb either. If someone will gossip to you, they will definitely gossip about you. These are tough lessons which many people regrettably learn the hard way. Kudos to you for being discerning. Thanks again for stopping by Joe. 

    Oarabile

    March 1, 2012 at 4:54 am

    Hey Mike
    Nice post i would say trust is the back bone of leadership and without it its impossible to lead effectively and to harmonize the followers.

      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2012 at 11:03 am

      Agreed – where trust is absent you’ll find leadership to be missing as well. Thanks Oarabile.

    Gayle

    March 9, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    Hi Mike,
    I enjoy the very human perspective of leadership you provide in your articles. Thanks. I just left an organization that is going through a large transformation. The CEO knew the transformation would mean heart-wrenching change for many. He chose to use “trust” as his flag as he leads the organization through difficult days. Because he’s had to back-peddle on his word (for good reason or not), the trust is being eroded. He’s a good leader for many reasons, but I wish he would have garnered support from within with another flag. It just reminds me that you don’t elicit trust just because you say you value it; you must act as one worthy of it.  

      Mike Myatt

      March 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

      Hi Gayle:

      I obviously don’t know the details of the situation you described and in principle agree with your sentiments. That said I offer the following food for thought…

      Some people believe there is never a good reason for a leader to break his/her word. This premise assumes the leader is perfect, and of course we all know there is no perfect leader. When a leader commits to a mistake, the right thing to do is not to continue the mistake, but to immediately walk it back. We’ve all found ourselves in this position, and we’ve all born the price of being refined between the hammer and the anvil. 

      The issue isn’t one of compromise – good leaders will compromise positions, opinions, philosophies, etc., but won’t compromise their values. If a leader fails to keep a positional commitment due to conflict of principle, then while the leader obviously made a bad call going in, they were principled enough to correct the mistake along the way – it is what it is. Reasonable people know the difference between a necessary adjustment and not being willing to do the right thing.

      Savvy leaders take their commitments seriously and don’t enter into them lightly. At the end of the day, the scorecard will show how well we’ve done as leaders in keeping our commitments by the people who choose to continue to be led by us. 

    Mike Myatt

    March 11, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Agreed. It’s just not that hard to keep your commitments, but if you can’t, you’d be far better off not making them at all.

    Mike Myatt

    March 11, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Thanks Kyle.

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