Building and Maintaining Trust

If character is the foundation of leadership, trust is the cornerstone of the foundation.

In an earlier post http://bit.ly/2N0pCwi I proposed that the foundation of leadership was character. I still believe that to be true. Character is the sum of your habits that tell others what you value. Leaders should adopt habits so others know they value their organization’s guiding principals. Organizations make a big deal out of their organizational values or guiding principals because those behavior are what they want the world to think the organization represents. Rarely do people talk about the corner stone of the foundation. However, if character is the foundation of leadership, trust is the cornerstone. If trust is so important, you have to wonder how do you develop and maintain trust. Like being a good leader, developing and maintaining trust takes effort.

Trust often exists in new organizations whether a company, team, or partnership. The same principal applies when new people join an organization; for the most part they are trusted. People generally trust each other. In spite of the warnings our parents gave us as children, and we as parents admonish our children, people trust strangers. That is one reason scammers are successful. Even scammers are trusting of others. Just watch any of James Veitch’s Scamalot videos on YouTube or Mashable to see him scam the scammers. The scammers trust him to do what he says he will do, well, until they realize he is jerking them around.

Humans learn to trust early. Trust is an important survival tool learned in families and with friends.

Trusting one another, family, friend, or co-worker is an important human quality. Early humans had to rely on each other to survive. As a result our brains developed to release certain hormones when we trust and cooperate with other people (Sinek, 2014, pp 33-38). Someone had to guard the existing provisions while another group went to hunt. The guards had to trust the hunters to hunt. Hunters had to trust the guards to protect what little they already gathered.

Today we have the same need to rely on others to survive and thrive. Military commanders rely on their higher headquarters to coordinate resources they require to accomplish missions. They also rely on subordinate commanders to execute tasks without direct supervision as well as their peers to their left, right, and above (l mean in the air over the battlefield) them. Each risks potentially life threatening tasks with little but a promise that those around him or her will complete their tasks and the others rely on that commander complete his or hers.

During World War I Major Charles Whittlesey found himself in command of his 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry Regiment along with attachments from other 77th Division units in a pocket behind enemy lines. The plan was that the division would attack to a phase line with several units on line and in mass to overrun the German trenches. As the attack progressed the units on Whittlesey’s flanks began to break and retreat. Commanders on his flanks warned him they had lost contact with units to the regiment’s left and right. Division headquarters assured Whittlesey several times during the attack his flanks were covered. He reached his objective that day, but was the only American unit to do so. The Germans restored their lines by the end of the next day and surrounded the 1-308th(+). Whittlesey trusted Maj. Gen. Alexander when he continued to press the attack. In spite of that let down, he continued to trust that the General would find a way to relieve them. Alexander had sent for reinforcements, but only a small number reached Whittlesey’s position before they were cut off from the Allied lines.

LTC Whittlesey receives his Medal of Honor. He trusted his senior leaders would relieve him and his Soldiers. He encourages his Soldiers to also have faith in their comrades efforts to come to their aid bolstering their trust.

Whittlesey established a strong defensive position and encouraged his men to fight well and have faith they would be relieved. His phone lines had been cut off by the Germans requiring him to rely on carrier pigeons to communicate with his regiment and division. The Soldiers of the 308th fought through six days of repeated German attacks rather than surrendering. They trusted their fellow Soldiers would fight their way forward to relieve them. In the movie version of this story, Major Whittlesey tells his junior leaders that they will win the battle. He trusted MG Alexander would be determined to relieve them. Whittlesey was right. Alexander trusted that Whittlesey would hold out as long as he could. Alexander used the Lost Battalion to motivate other units to fight hard. He continued to pressure the German lines to reestablish contact with Whittlesey and his men. The Germans could not continue to stand against the pressure on the lines while also trying to dislodge the 308th. The 77th Division broke through and finally relieved Whittlesey and the men of the 308th Infantry (Durr, 2018 & Carabatsos, 2001).

In this example there was lot of reason not to trust, but leaders did trust each other. The leaders passed along their trust to the Soldiers. The result was an Allied victory in the Argonne Forrest that led to the cease fire several weeks later on November 11, 1918.

As Veitch’s Scamalot videos show, sometimes it is easier to trust strangers than people we already know. Strangers have yet to do anything to cause us not to trust them. We know the flaws of those around us which may cause us to not trust them as much a those strangers. This is where leadership happens. Establishing trust is easy. Maintaining trust within existing organizations takes the most work. It would have been easy for Major Whittlesey to surrender and stop trusting his commanders. They had let him down by not telling him the truth about the other units falling to the rear.

Trust, like solid stone, can erode over time. Leaders recognize factors that cause trust to erode. They make small corrections and repairs along to prevent the foundation from collapsing.

Trust erodes as people are unwilling or unable to live up to expectations. Jim is unable to complete a project on time because Pam did not budget enough money to complete her assigned task. Pam did not know the task would cost that much because she relied on a vendor’s quote. The vendor was out of stock so Pam had to order from another supplier and request additional funding. Both took more time than planned and jammed up Jim. Now the manager does not trust either of them, and neither Jim nor Pam trust each other. None of the people in this story intended to behave unethically. The vendor did not predict Pam’s order and ran out of stock. Pam trusted the vendor had a good supply of what she needed. Jim trusted Pam had checked out the vendor. Michael, the manager, trusted Jim could lead the project and complete it on time and within budget.

On the surface keeping trust is simple. As the above example shows it only takes a small mistake to loose trust. However if people live by the organizational principals, difficult situations can be navigated so lessons learned are applied in the future. People have to take responsibility for their mistakes. Leaders have to forgive those mistakes and reestablish trust.

It is easier to make small repairs when trust is breached than to try to rebuild trust after things fall in around you.

Leaders are responsible for building and maintaining trust. They do this in several ways. Leaders define their organization’s guiding principals through regular communication, education, and setting the example. Leaders allow others to make mistakes, analyze what went wrong, and learn how to avoid those mistakes in the future. The final step for leaders is to allow the employee to try again. Doing so shows he still has trust in the employee and has faith he will succeed. Leaders respectfully share employee mistakes so others learn what not to do. You do this by setting them up as the new subject matter expert. Employees rarely act to sabotage you and the organization. If they do, you need to take appropriate disciplinary steps which also establishes that you can be trusted to make hard choices.

There are times when bad things happen out of the leader’s control. When handled poorly, those events destroy trust between key players. Rebuilding trust is difficult. Leaders ensure trust is rebuilt after a crisis. There are several ways to reestablish trust such as using some sort of mediation process to settle disputes between aggrieved parties; reassigning people to new positions to reduce friction; terminating those who willfully violated the organization’s guiding principals; training about roles, responsibilities and shared values; or celebrating victories through teamwork over extreme challenges. Regardless of the reason trust has been lost, it is the leader’s responsibility to regain trust within the organization. The leader takes action allowing others to regain trust.

Trust is the cornerstone of character, the foundation of leadership. Leaders are responsible to establish and maintain trust in their teams and organizations. Often it is easier to trust a stranger than the person you worked with for years because of many large and small transgressions violating trust. Trust however is the force that inspires others to do more than they thought they could do. Leaders consistently communicate organizational guiding principals and live those principals as a model for others to follow. Leaders keep open lines of communication to detect the earliest signs of mistrust to do what is necessary to repair transgressions. Sometimes leaders have to face the fact that someone deliberately did something wrong for selfish reasons and needs to be separated from the organization. While rare, failing to take such action causes increased distrust. Leaders allow honest mistakes by reviewing causes and effects with employees and developing means to correct those mistakes. They treat the mistakes as a learning opportunity for everyone which shows respect and builds trust. Like Soldiers on a battlefield surrounded, without food, water or ammunition, organizations with strong ties developed by trusting relationships can accomplish deeds that seem impossible. Trust is the strong cornerstone of every leadership foundation.

References

Photo Credits

  • Cornerstone by the author CC attribution no commercial
  • Trusted adult by Liane Metzler from unsplash.com, used with an Unsplash license
  • Award ceremony LTC Whittlesey from the National Archieves
  • Eroded stone by the author CC attribution no commercial
  • Reconstruction by Milivoj Kuhar from unsplash.com used with Unsplash license

Character — the Foundation of Leadership

Character Character Vennis the sum of a person’s habits and qualities. It is the center of a Venn diagram of your skills, knowledge, abilities, values, relationships, past experiences, habits, and personality. Developing good character helps develop a good reputation, which helps gain influence. Others determine whether or not you are a good leader, or have the potential to be a good leader, by observing common traits in the character of other good leaders. Developing good character traits is within your control.

In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek tells a story about the order leaders in the military eat. He reports that without orders or instruction that enlisted military members eat before the noncommissioned officers, and noncommissioned officers before officers, according to rank. The reality is, those lessons are taught to junior leaders. As a brand new howitzer section chief, I decided to eat during a break in firing, before the rest of my section. I reasoned they could go to chow when we resumed firing, but I needed to be on the gun to supervise operations. As I neared the front of the line, I was approached by my platoon sergeant. He noted he had not seen several of my Soldiers yet. He sent me back to my gun without chow and directed me to eat after the rest of my section. The military trains leaders well, and learning to take care of troops is a key lesson that is taught.

The battery resumed firing before I was able to eat. I still had Soldiers going to chow. I did eat that evening. The last guy from my section brought me a plate of food because he knew I would miss chow during the fire missions. I learned the lesson of why leaders eat last. When leaders take care of their troops, their troops will take care of them.

DOD-2009-USMC by SSGT Greeson-flickr.jpgThat first lesson I learned during field feeding taught me the importance of taking care of those you lead. When your followers know you are taking care of their needs, they know they can focus on their tasks required to accomplish the mission. They know you have their back. That only happens when leaders receive trust from those they lead. Trust turns into respect. Respect creates disciplined organizations. Disciplined organizations accomplish great things in the face of adversity.

Anyone can build the kind of character that encourages others to follow them. Look at each element of character. To acquire any of those attributes, potential leaders need to act. Action is the key to leading others.

Knowledge

Leaders need education. Three pillars of gaining knowledge include institutional education, personal development, and real world assignments. Each provides different opportunities to learn.

Institutional education provides general information about the topics included in the course of study. The lessons learned in the classroom provide a background to help people think and reason when problem solving. One learns the theory behind the practice.Roberto-Saltori_Knowledge_Management-flikr.jpg

Real world assignments provide opportunities to apply classroom lessons. New graduates are given low level, simple issues to resolve. They are closely supervised to ensure they understand the expectations as they apply their knowledge. These opportunities allow people to apply their classroom knowledge and make mistakes on low-risk assignments in order to develop deeper understanding of underlying principals in their lessons.

Self development describes a variety of educational means. Examples include reading topical books and journals, asking for extra assignments to meet stretch goals, field trips to locations relevant to the work, and self selected training events or conferences. The smart young leader figures out what knowledge s/he needs to improve his or her performance and finds a way to gain that knowledge. Self development is viewed by more senior leaders as a key indicators of younger leaders potential for greater responsibility. It is demonstrative of their diligence.

Skills and Abilities

Most of the skills and abilities required of leaders have little to do with doing the work of the organization. Knowing how a machinist works a piece of metal, a warehouse employee finds a widget, or what day employment taxes need to be filed generally are important details for others. Knowing those things need to be done and finding the right people to do them is the leader’s job. Leadership requires skill to develop effective processes, the ability to apply influence to seniors, peers, and subordinates alike, and ensure resources are available.

Many have said that leaders lead people, and managers manage things. Someone can be a good manager and a bad leader. Leaders who are poor managers never become good leaders. Managing resources is an important skill so your followers have required resources to do their jobs.

Habits

I had a friend, Gerry Berry, who often said something like, “You always make time for the things that are important to you.” This would often come up when we would discuss doing something together outside of work; we being a few of us. It was rare that our little group of friends could always find the same day and time to do something with everyone. He would direct that line to those who had previous commitments as a way of reminding all of us about the importance of how we choose to use our time. Others determine what we value by the choices we make including how use of time.

Gerry developed an aggressive form of cancer while he was still young. He dreamed of building a barn for his wife and son so they could move the horses they loved to his home. Several of his friends developed a plan to build the barn before he died. At no time were all his friends present on the property at the same time. However, over the course of a week, everyone found some time to participate in some way. What do your habits tell others what you find important?

Experience

wing-cloud-sky-adventure-wind-old-593601-pxhere.com.jpgUnlike the other factors discussed above, we only have limited control of our experiences. A person may seek out experiences, but sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time with an open mind and properly prepared for some experiences. There are plenty of experiences people can control and obtain. You can choose to hike the Appalachian Trail and gain that experience. You can choose to develop a speaking program and present it to several local civic groups to demonstrate expertise in a subject area. Not everyone can go to Harvard, but most people can complete college if they really want and have a college experience. Not everyone can perform in Carnegie Hall, but there are plenty of performance venues if you want to perform.

Trying new things and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone allows you to understand more things in life. You become more emphatic with the plight and victories of others. You learn and gain knowledge. You learn about abilities you did not possess and you learn about others. There are plenty of things you can do to broaden you experiences.

Relationships

I often heard an expression that one can tell much about another by the way s/he treats those who can do nothing for them. Too often we treat co-workers better than friends or family members and our bosses better than co-workers. We believe we have to display our best behaviors at work, and we should. If we go back to the integrity thought, our treatment of friends and family is really a reflection of what we do when others are not watching. Yes, you have to be on your best behavior at home.Leonora(Ellie)Enking-alesalbanianwaiter-flickr.jpg

People of character treat everyone with respect and dignity. That does not mean you have to agree with everyone all the time about everything. Actually, to give that impression is disrespectful and not helpful. How you disagree with others is a true indicator of your respect for another person. It is okay to agree to disagree. People notice the character of your relationships to determine whether or not they should develop one with you. People want and need to interact with others. People who value others, find others value them. You demonstrate your value others by paying attention to them. Ignore your phone. Your social media feed will wait until you are alone. Focus your attention on the person in front of you.

Be on time. When you tell someone you will meet them at a certain time, do it. Adopt the idea that being early is being on time, being on time is late, and being late is unacceptable. Never keep your boss, a client, a friend, or a family member waiting.

Do what you say you are going to do. If you fail to fulfill promises, no one will trust you. It is better to under promise and over deliver than miss a deadline.

Personality

There are lots of personality tests out there. People take them for many reasons. Your tested personality is irrelevant. Many personality test questions ask what you prefer. What you prefer does not dictate what you do. What you do matters, even if it is not your natural preference.

Learn to take charge of your preferences, control them, and do what is necessary in any given moment. There are times to speak and times to listen. There are times for action and times to wait. I think this ends with, “There is a time to every season under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). These lessons are from ancient knowledge. Wisdom comes from learning when and how to apply them.

nature-forest-house-building-hut-village-1216943-pxhere.com-cropped.jpgThe foundations of character date back eons. Periodic reviews, such as this blog, keep lessons fresh in people’s minds. Each of us can change our behavior to improve our character.

Character is the foundation of leadership because it forms a solid base of power to influence others. Character is the focus of your knowledge, skills, abilities, values, relationships, and personality. People are predisposed to behave certain ways in situations based on each of these factors. Because people are self-aware, they can judge how their behaviors in each area affects their chosen path. People can choose responsible character building behaviors rather than their preferred responses. Successful leaders understand when and how to match their behaviors to those required for best results. Application becomes easier with practice and reflection. People make mistakes. Smart people learn from their mistakes. Work on your character in order to build a strong foundation as a leader.


Photo Credits

Venn Diagram by the author Creative Commons Attribution

Chow Line from US DOD by SSGT Greeson, USMC public domain

Knowledge Management by Roberto Saltori from flickr.com CC Attribution Reuse

Wild Blue Yonder from pxhere.com CC0

Nature Forest House from pxhere.com CC0 — cropped by the author