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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Trust: Essence of Leadership

Trust is the essence of leadership – the coin of the realm. Unless people build trust with their colleagues, they cannot gain legitimacy to lead, nor can they empower others.

Recent studies have shown that only half of Americans trust their leaders. Since the 2008-09 global financial crisis, many Americans have lost trust in their leaders and the institutions they lead.

Gaining the trust of people is essential for every leader. Leaders cannot be effective without full confidence of the constituencies that grant their institution its legitimacy, nor can capitalism function without trust.

No matter how effective your strategy, your vision, or your communication, you will fail to achieve the desired results for your organization if you can- not inspire trust as a leader. Lack of trust in your leadership will cause your team to fear failure, resulting in less risk-taking, and therefore, less innovation. Building a culture of trust starts with you. You must quell fears of organizational power by exhibiting authentic behavior that inspires trust and fosters an open, safe environment.

To be worthy of trust, leaders must have a clear sense of their True North – the purpose of their leadership and the essence of their beliefs, their values and the principles by which they lead. If they stay on course of their True North and do not deviate under pressure, then they can build trust among colleagues and legitimacy among all their constituencies.

What’s required are new leaders who are grounded in authenticity, relationships, and emotional intelligence. To gain trust, they must be genuine, sincere, transparent, and true to their word. People sense who is authentic and who is not. Only when they are authentic will people grant them the support they need to lead organizations.

To strengthen the trust and confidence in America’s leaders, we need a new leadership mindset and a new breed of leaders, with five characteristics in common:

  1. They should be authentic leaders, focused on serving their clients and all the institution’s constituents, rather than charismatic leaders seeking money, fame, and power for themselves.
  2. They should place the interests of their institutions and society as a whole above their own interests.
  3. They should have the integrity to tell the whole truth, admit their mistakes, and acknowledge their shortcomings. Authentic leadership is not about being perfect. It is having the courage to admit when you’re wrong and to get on with solving problems, rather than covering them up.
  4. They need to adapt quickly to new realities, changing themselves as well as their institutions, rather than going into denial when things don’t go as intended.
  5. They need the resilience to bounce back after dev- astating losses. Resilience enables leaders to restore trust by empowering people to create new solu- tions that build great institutions for the future.

Earning trust requires significant time and effort, and must come from a place of authenticity. Trust cannot be faked. You cannot become a trusted leader by try- ing to imitate someone else. You can learn from others’ experiences, but there is no way you can be successful when you are trying to be like them. People trust you when you are genuine and authentic, not a replica of someone else.

Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. Be transparent with your team, even when the truth may be unpopular or inconvenient. Don’t punish those who bring you bad news. Encourage risk-taking and celebrate “good failures” as opportunities to learn and move forward.

Remember: trust starts with you but it is a win-win for everyone.

Bill George is the former Chair and Chief Executive Officer of Medtronics and author of four best-selling books including True North and Seven Lessons for Leading in Crisis. www.billgeorge.org

This article was originally published for the Winter 2015 issue of Trust Magazine