by Jim Funk
Trust must be earned. But how do leaders earn the trust of colleagues, superiors, and the people they lead? To begin with, leaders must be competent. If they don’t possess strong leadership capabilities it is difficult to trust that they will lead their team to achieve the desired results. Secondly, they must have character. Leaders are not only skill sets, but they are people who bring their whole selves and their character traits to their leadership roles. It is the leader as a person who earns the trust of others. And finally, to be trusted, leaders must be vulnerable. They must be willing to be transparent, humble and honest in admitting their mistakes, and acknowledging that they don’t have all the answers.
This may sound good in theory, but to find out how this plays out in the real world I interviewed leaders of three successful organizations who are highly trusted by the people they work with.
Leaders earn trust by demonstrating their competence. Grant Marsh is the General Manager of The Guild House, one of the restaurants owned by Cameron Mitchell Restaurants based in Columbus, Ohio. Grant earned the respect of several of his team members one evening by demonstrating the competencies of prudent decision-making, effective conflict management, and holding others accountable for their behavior.
As he described it, this situation was a case of “the customer is not always right.” A few guests ended up having too much to drink, and they became demanding, rude and abusive to some of the staff. Grant confronted the guests, and upon assessing the situation he made the decision to ask them to leave. They were not too happy about him taking that action, to say the least.
Some restaurant managers might be reluctant to take that step, lest the guests become angry and later badmouth the restaurant that threw them out. But a trusted leader makes the right decision and does not allow guests to disrespect the staff. Even at a restaurant that proudly proclaims they serve “a lot of love on every plate,” staff should be able to trust that their leader will have their backs. In addition, Grant pointed out that such a decision will also be respected by other guests who witness it, and will build trust with them as well.
When leaders have to make difficult decisions and lead employees through tough times, things go much smoother when they are trusted because of their character. Blake Dye is President of St.Vincent Heart Center in Indianapolis. At St.Vincent, as well as in another facility he previously led, he is consistently described by his fellow executives as a person of character who is highly trusted. I met with Blake to discuss his leadership more in depth, and as we talked, I listened for aspects of his character that enabled him to build trust so effectively.
He gave a specific example of a time when the trust he had built helped employees accept reductions in future retirement benefits, which had to be made because the plan was more costly than the organization could afford. In some workplaces, such a change would bring much discontent and erode trust in the administration, but that was not the case in Blake’s facility. In redesigning the plan, Blake first gathered input about the change and how to best communicate it. He respected peoples’ opinions, and worked with them in a collaborative way. When the decision was communicated, the leadership team was all on the same page, speaking as one voice about the reasons for the change and how employees could best manage it. And it wasn’t just lip service—it was authentic.
The character traits Blake demonstrated in this situation were his value for relationships, people, inclusivity, fairness, compassion, reliability and honesty. As Blake said when we wrapped up our conversation, these are among the character traits critical to earning and maintaining trust. Without them, not only will it be difficult to make the right decision, but there will not be trust.
John Mundell, President of Mundell & Associates environmental consulting firm, an Economy of Communion business, shared with me an example that illustrates the importance of being vulnerable as a leader. When a recent issue arose with a client, he called a meeting to discuss it. People were intent on offering their solutions, but they weren’t really listening to each other. As the boss, John was tempted to make a final decision and bring the discussion to an end, but he realized his solution wasn’t necessarily the ideal choice. He decided to make sure everyone in the room had a chance to share their thoughts.
After being silent for most of the discussion, one of the youngest and least experienced members of the team finally spoke up. She offered a combination of the ideas that had been presented, along with her own special twist. There was a brief silence when she finished, then one of the senior managers said, in a bit of amazement, “I think she just nailed it!”
As they left the meeting that morning, John knew it was a teaching moment for everyone. No one, not even the boss, always has the right answer. Given the opportunity, anyone can make significant contributions. But that only happens when leaders can be vulnerable and give their colleagues a chance to shine.
In my Holistic Leadership competency model, being trusted is one of nine characteristics critical to successful leadership and successful organizations. If you are a leader, how would your employees rate you on your competence, character, and vulnerability? Consider asking these questions in your next employee engagement survey, or in a 360° appraisal of your performance. The answer just might be a good indicator of how highly you are trusted!