How to tackle the trust deficit


Trust, not authority is the new currency of great leaders, finds Piers Cain

Trust is in short supply these days. Brexiteers don’t trust experts, Donald Trump doesn’t trust the US secret service, and many people don’t trust him. People don’t trust banks or oil companies to do the right thing. People don’t trust chief executives to pay themselves a fair salary. It gets worse. British newspaper the Sunday Times in January ran a front page story ‘Bosses track you night and day’ about ‘sociometric badges’ being tested in at least four UK businesses, including a high-street bank, to monitor their employees fitness, productivity, emotions and ability to get on with colleagues 24/7. So, to complete the circle, it seems that at least some employers don’t trust their staff and would like to control them more, in the interests of greater productivity. These pilot schemes are reportedly voluntary, but for how long?  (Interestingly, the pilots don’t appear to be monitoring the alertness and emotional health of those people whose decisions really could damage the organization – the members of the executive board).

So, John Blakey’s The Trusted Executive is timely; but his belief that “trust, not authority is the only glue that will hold organizations together in a diverse, global, technology empowered world”, faces some strong headwinds if it is to prevail. This book is based on a combination of academic research (mainly in psychology), interviews, case studies and the author’s own experience as an executive coach. It is an intriguing mixture of self-coaching manual and a thought-provoking call for change.

Blakey’s basic argument is that the role of business leaders is to anticipate – to take a view on where the world is going and to position their organizations to perform well in the new situation. He contends that the traditional model of business leadership has failed to anticipate how the world has changed. Traditional business leaders legitimize their position by intellectual ability and on the authority of their position as executives. Executives have a responsibility to generate a profit for their shareholders and pretty much everything is subordinated to that requirement. However, a combination of social media, the internet, globalization, and greater diversity has broken down this legitimacy. The consequence of failing to anticipate these changes is widespread distrust in business and business leaders. Something has to give.

What can be done?  Blakey proposes that business leaders should become ‘trusted stewards’ – responsible, socially aware, and trustworthy. He identifies three key characteristics that a trustworthy leader needs to demonstrate – ability, integrity and benevolence. All three elements must be present, so a leader that lacks the ability to deliver results will not be trusted. Deliberately echoing Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, Blakey identifies nine leadership habits that inspire results, relationships and reputation: coach, be consistent, be honest, be open, be humble, evangelize, be brave, be kind, and deliver. He believes that these attributes of excellence can be strengthened through practice; so a large part of the book is devoted to helping the reader analyse these habits, evaluate how well developed they are in themselves or their teams, and how to measure improvements.

An attractive feature of this work is that it discusses what to do when you fall short of meeting these high standards. So often writers on management and leadership focus on success but have little practical to say about learning from failure and how to do it. Yet there is much to be learned from the experience of business leaders who have fallen from grace but have had the honesty and courage to face the reasons why.

– Piers Cain is a management consultant. John Blakey’s book, The Trusted Executive: Nine leadership habits that inspire results, relationships and reputation is available now.