Earn Trust By First Giving It Out

Earn Trust by First Giving it Out

- 24 Best Leadership Practices | Part 7 of 24 -

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Trust is a fragile yet vital component to leadership. It is earned over much time but lost in a moment. Ultimately, if you are not trusted, you cannot lead. However, to be trustworthy, you must first give trust out before expecting to receive it back. As Admiral James Bond Stockdale said, “Leadership must be based on goodwill.” Accordingly, trust begets trust and as a leader it is a leader's job to set the example by giving out trust before expecting to receive it back. Excessive rules may work for compliance but choice, which only comes from giving out trust, is a far better option for bringing the best out of one's company and employees. Simply, trust is the fuel for choice, choice is the fuel for an ownership mindset, and an ownership mindset is the fuel for action, innovation, and profitable growth.

A leader’s main task is to enable not inhibit action. Such a notion begins with trust and a culture that manages for outcomes, not activities. Simply, great leaders inspire action not through a command and compliance approach but rather through a trust and empowerment model. 

Ultimately, a leader's main task is to enable not inhibit action. This begins with trust and empowerment. As Theodore Roosevelt once said: “The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” Simply, great leaders manage outcomes, not activities by giving out trust before expecting to receive it back. By managing for outcomes instead of activities leaders set the tone for a focus on results – nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, many leaders and the accompanying enterprise get so focused on the processes, rules, and red tape that the end-goal becomes a faint, blurry image. As such, lack of trust and accompanying micromanagement of activities is the death of many initiatives and enterprises. Instead, leaders must bring focus and alignment as to where the enterprise is headed and what goals, milestones, and KPI’s are needed for success. Then, it’s up to the leaders to empower the workforce with the autonomy, trust, and runway to best leverage their own strengths in charting the course that allows each individual to best arrive at the set outcome. As Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman noted, “Don’t buy the belief that trust is precious and must be earned. If you have a basic mistrust of people, you are likely to want to control the details of their performance rather than set the outcomes and let the employee find his or her way.” 

EXHIBIT 2 (Click to Play)
Bernstein conducting with only the happiness of his face

For example, great orchestral conductors obviously understand the score, they understand the intention, they have a point of view, and of course they have a vision for how they want the musicians to interpret the score. However, they are likely not nearly as proficient of a performer as each of the respected musicians (e.g., concert master). Instead, the conductor must trust that each musician will bring their best. In turn, great conductors give each musician free reign to perform in a manner that best leverages their strengths with subtle nudges given merely for interpretation purposes. For example, during one masterful performance renowned conductor Leonard Bernstein trusted his orchestra so fully that he didn’t feel a need to conduct. Instead, Mr. Bernstein simply gave discreet looks of approval as each musician was empowered with trust to perform as they saw best. In turn, this trust inspired a truly breathtaking performance (See Exhibit 2). Leonard Bernstein knew the power of remote control versus direct control. At all times he had a watchful eye on the orchestra as any leader should but not once did he interfere but rather gave trust out, understanding that the musicians had the skill to perform without being micromanaged.

Great leaders recognize the power of remote control versus direct control, discarding the notion that trust must be earned. Instead, visionary leaders give power to their people by giving trust out before expecting to receive it back. Simply, by giving out trust the path to earning it back increases exponentially.

Similarly, corporate leaders must transition their approach from direct control to remote control. Simply, leaders must give trust to earn trust. Any form of micromanagement and direct control instead of remote control is the enemy of trust. Just as Leonard Bernstein realized his orchestra didn’t need much (in this example not even a baton) so too employees don’t need much except a runway to succeed that only happens via trust, empowerment, and autonomy. Remember, every rule takes away a choice and destroys trust. Thus, leaders must never try to perfect people or mold them in an image they see fit as such a mindset ushers in micromanaging which destroys goodwill, trust, and autonomy.

Above all, great leaders inspire action not through a command and compliance approach but rather through a trust and empowerment model. Indeed, leaders must remember that trust is fragile, earned in drops but lost in buckets. By giving out trust the path to earning it back increases exponentially. On the other hand, leaders that are full of mistrust impose rules for the sake of rules in an effort to protect themselves. This in turn creates a culture of compliance that ultimately destroys the company from within. More often than not, if leaders set a high bar and in turn expect the best from people the best is what they will get. Great leaders discard the notion that trust must be earned. Instead, visionary leaders give power to their people by giving trust out before expecting to receive it back. Such an approach ushers in an inspired culture, high employee engagement, and newfound innovation that will unlock sustainable, profitable growth.

Read the other best leadership practices HERE.

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24 Best Leadership Practices
- Series Overview -

The following article is Part 7 of a 24 part series on leadership (See all 24 best leadership practices HERE). To summarize, leadership is everyone’s business. Moreover, leadership abilities are not some innate talent that some were either born with or not but rather is a highly learnable skill. As such, everyone has the potential to become a great leader as long as one embraces a mindset of continuous improvement. Simply, leadership is not so much about inherent gifts and raw talent but rather the emotional awareness, humility, and perseverance to understand that leadership is a lifelong journey that is never mastered. Indeed, aspiring leaders must acquire the endurance of a marathoner, the musculature of a sprinter, and the mental fortitude to embrace that there is never a finish line but rather an unending goal of continuous transformation.

Ultimately, the leadership journey is not about becoming someone else but instead is about becoming one's best self so that in turn one can help others become their best self. And, while there are many facets that go into successful leadership we have identified 24 best leadership practices all of which are grouped into one of three categories, namely (1) inspire, (2) empower, and (3) innovate (see all 24 practices HERE).

  1. INSPIRE: To inspire action, great leaders appeal to people's hearts more than their minds. Simply, visionary leaders plan with the mind, lead with the heart, and reflect with the soul.

  2. EMPOWER: Great leaders empower those they are leading while simultaneously creating a collaborative culture that promotes the notion that together we can accomplish anything as long as we don't care who gets the credit.

  3. INNOVATE: Visionary leaders embrace change and understand that the term "good enough" is used by the lazy to justify inaction. As such, great leaders disrupt themselves and their companies before others do it for them.

Leadership is the greatest race one will ever run – one without a finish line but also one with an exponential ceiling for those that embrace change, growth, and learning. While the level of employee talent may determine the potential of an organization it is the leader that ultimately unlocks that potential and determines the success of both the organization and its people. Although no leader will be a master at each of the proposed 24 leadership practices, awareness is often the greatest agent for change and continuous improvement. As such, we hope the proposed practices will be of service to you in maximizing not only your leadership potential but also the potential of those around you.


Joshua Seedman is the founder and chairman of PNI Consulting, a management consulting firm that specializes in global transformations. He has over 20 years of operating and general management experience with expertise in organizational transformations, customer experience, employee engagement, digital transformations, sales & marketing, operational turnarounds, culture/change management, and high-stakes negotiations. His experience includes executive roles within F500 companies, top-tier consulting leadership (McKinsey & Company), over 10 years of global P&L ownership, and corporate lawyer (Davis Polk & Wardwell). He received his MBA from Kellogg School of Management and his Juris Doctor (cum laude) from Northwestern University School of Law.

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