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How Leaders Can Regain Trust in Untrusting Times

Pandemic confusion, police brutality, corporate corruption and unchecked elitism have eroded our faith in leaders who are supposed to act in the collective best interest of others. In this opinion piece, Wharton adjunct professor of management Gregory P. Shea offers 10 steps for leaders who want maintain, or perhaps even reclaim, their ability to lead. Shea is co-author of Leading Successful Change, published by Wharton School Press, and senior fellow at the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management.

Google employees protest an attempt to silence their activism. Facebook employees stage a virtual walkout. Amazon employees protest over workplace safety, and a company vice president resigns over their firings. Employees at Target and Walmart protest as well. Print and broadcast media struggle with various policies, and prominent journalists resign at the The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. The Washington Post reports on research findings that the COVID-19 pandemic will undermine trust in government for decades.

Isolated data points? Maybe. A sign of the times? Perhaps. Regardless, leaders should take note.

First, leadership is a relationship. No relationship, no leadership. One or more people allow another person to influence their behavior in a manner or direction that the other wishes. That influence can and does come from a wide variety of sources. But regardless of source, no such relationship means no followers, and no followers means no leaders and no leadership. As one Wharton Executive Education participant put it: “We refer to a person who sets the direction for our travel as a ‘leader.’ We refer to a person traveling without followers as ‘a bloke out for a walk.’”

Second, societal and organizational elites have, for decades, chiseled away at their relationship with followers. Systematic shredding of long-standing “do your job, keep your job” cultures in the last 20 to 30 years of the 20th century eviscerated the psychological contract between employer and employee, even as employers complained about the remarkable demise of employee loyalty. Since 1978, CEO pay has increased 1,000%, compared with 11.9% for average workers. CEOs now make 278 times as much as the average worker, up from 20 times in 1965. Trust in government has fallen from about 70% to under 50% over the same period.

“Societal and organizational elites have, for decades, chiseled away at their relationship with followers.”

Few visible elites paid any appreciable price in the wake of the financial crisis (unlike after the S&L crisis of the 1980s and 1990s), and those who did were frequently seen loading up their wagons with gold before heading out of town and into “retirement.” More recently, tax breaks benefit elites disproportionately, and wealthy parents cheat and bribe their children’s way into college, worried that the inherent advantages of wealth alone might prove insufficient. Amid the pandemic, legislation ensures a refilling of the wagons of the elite, even as social media displays countless images of cocktail parties on yachts and exclusive bungalows, some reachable only by private jets. All of this transpires as disparity statistics portray widening gaps — the pandemic reveals the deadly consequences of those disparities, and policing practices the perils of race.

Each of these experiences and data points strikes a blow to faith that elites will at least roughly balance their own interests and those of others, be they constituents, fans, shareholders, fellow citizens or employees. Each of these experiences also places a growing burden on anyone who would lead. Leaders everywhere will attempt to lead their would-be followers through the grinding recovery and potential recurrent pandemic crises as well as a reenergized call for social and economic justice. Would-be leaders will do so painted with the brush of being an elite. Meaning exists in context, and the current context does not support calls by the elite for unity of purpose and commonality of pursuit.

Rebuilding and sustaining trust, essential to strong leader/follower relations and central to ongoing work performance, will require explicit attention by leaders. The visibility of persistent, self-serving elite behavior has torn at the relational fabric that is key to effective leadership. Clearly repetitive, transactional, get-what-you-can behavior by many elites has not only spawned suspicion of elites, it has atomized many collectives, breaking organizations into groups, groups into subgroups and subgroups into collections of individuals. In this broader context, organizational leaders stagger into the second half of 2020.

10 Steps for Rebuilding Trust

For those willing to put in the work, the following 10 practices can help rebuild the relational fabric essential to leadership:

  • Clarify your values. Determining what you stand for will provide a guiding star and help avoid common traps. As Malcolm X said, “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.”

  • Identify who you want to be as a leader. Distill what being a leader means to you and how you wish to be seen as a leader.

  • Question, stop and listen carefully. Do not assume that you know others’ framework or that it is as it was at the advent of 2020. That framework will determine the meaning and effect of your words. It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what gets heard.

  • Tell the truth and nothing but the truth. Say what you know and don’t know. Say when you expect to know more. Delineate the process for any decision-making. Provide no false assurances.

  • Lay out the dots. What data are you using and from what sources?

  • Connect the dots. Convey meaning and how to understand what is unfolding. Don’t forget to provide a desired end state, one worth the journey.

  • Lay out the plan as you know it and the specific next steps that it will require.

  • Do what you say you will do. Hold yourself accountable by setting standards and objectives for your own behavior, and then meet them.

  • Lead from the front when times get tougher and from the back when times ease up. Both enable others who can lead to step up and do so, having seen it modeled as well as having the space to try it.

  • Feed your horses, feed your people, feed yourself. Get your followers what they need to succeed, tend to their well-being, and then (and only then) do you tend to yourself. But don’t forget to do so, because your followers will need you tomorrow.

Moving forward in this COVID-19 world, a world reeling in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, will require deep collaboration between leaders and followers. That collaboration will turn in no small way around how well leaders can counteract the zeitgeist concerning elites, how well they can reknit the frayed strands connecting themselves with those whom they most need — followers.

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