Years ago, my son, a new age-worthy boy scout, asked me about a topic he’s heard before, and was mentioned more often in his new scout unit.

He asked: What is leadership?

I often share variations of the answer I gave him years ago, and to be honest, I don’t recall the exact words I said then. But this is fairly close:

Leadership is about our ability to connect and influence people, so to obtain a followership to achieve an end goal.

Leadership is About the Team

A team is a system of interdependent, complex biological systems called people.

A team is a living, breathing entity – like a fragile ecosystem that exists purely because people make it exist.

One of the many perspectives important for leaders to have in their toolbox is to view leadership as a fragile ecosystem. As such, there are resources critical for the success of the ecosystem.

One of the most life-sustaining resource in the leadership ecosystem is trust.

Many of the leadership values, principles, traits and practices we’ve heard of relate in some way to building or maintaining trust.

It’s All About Trust

At face value, trust seems like a simple word and without having thought deeper about what it means. It may be difficult to understand why there’s a hullabaloo about trust.

Many have never even made a trip to the dictionary to read the numerous definitions on trust.

It is important to note that many of the definitions of trust apply to how trust is used in leadership and organizational science. And the impact of trust goes deep into the subconscious.

Many organizations run without much trust, so one could dismiss its importance. But as the old adage goes, sometimes what counts cannot be counted.

Trust doesn’t show up on the balance sheet, but it certainly counts. Effective leaders realize this, and know that the bottom line is often negatively impacted when trust is nonexistent or lacking.

Contribute or Consume

If we look at a natural ecosystem, we’ll see that all life forms contribute to resources either directly or indirectly, and they also consume them.

Viewing trust as an essential resource in the leadership ecosystem, we know that building trust takes time and effort. Losing it can happen in a blink of an eye.

If we do something to violate trust, it may take much more time and effort to get it back than it took to build in the first place.

One of the most profound ways to rebuild lost trust is to exhibit humility and transparency (be genuine). Extend trust by admitting mistakes, making no excuses, and being sincere in the promise to make it right.

This extends trust because you are entrusting people to accept your apology, and choose to continue voluntarily followership.

It may be uncertain and scary because you are temporarily inverting the power differential. If it is too much for you to do, you may have to rethink your philosophical orientation about leadership.

Related:  All Leadership is Situational

You may not have much trust to begin with, which will make an apology seem like a condescending gesture, a trick, or a diversion. Consequently, it may consume even more trust.

Leadership Ecosystem

Of course, the mistake you made should not have been grave because it might require outside intervention. Otherwise, if those you extend trust to do not respond well, then you learned something about them that may be valuable in future decisions.

Or, it may indicate your leadership ecosystem is in bad shape and requires additional attention.

Everyone will make mistakes, and if the team is lazy and sweeps them under the rug rather than addressing them and moving on, you may have an ecosystem that is out of balance.

You can also lose trust without consciously intending to do so. One way is being inconsistent with a direct report.

Losing Trust

The concept of bias includes the notion that how you regard someone will show in your decisions, language, voice inflection, and body language.

If how you regard someone is incompatible with the impression you try to give, they will pick up on it. This destroys trust.

For instance, if you do not like a direct report, it will show in how you talk to them and in the work you assign. If you publicly try to hide how you truly feel about them, their trust for you will shrink.

Another way of losing trust is by abusing your power to harm someone because you don’t like them.

In short, if you are bullying a direct report, you will not have their trust, as noted by many articles here on bullying.

If you think you aren’t a bully, you might read Al Gonzalez’ article on this topic: Leaders Beware Good People Bully Too

Effective Leaders Build Trust

They want to know how they treat others, how they come across, and how they affect those they lead. They are self-aware and seek to learn what builds and destroys trust.

They realize that maintaining a healthy leadership ecosystem requires ongoing efforts.

We leaders should look for and value all strengths, but weakness only when they matter. We should also help develop relevant weaknesses into strengths if possible.

We may need to make immediate decisions based on where people are at any given time, but by also developing those we lead by making encouragement and empowerment an equal mantra in our leadership ecosystem, we will grow trust in our leadership ecosystem.

How Can Leaders Build Trust?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Mark Graybill
Mark has a Master’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and is a management consultant, a leadership instructor for the Air Force Reserves, and a Ph.D. student of Psychology specializing in Social Cognition and Instruction.
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