Leadership and Broken Trust

Over the years I’ve heard the following statement on more than a few occasions; “I don’t have to trust him/her, I just have to work with them.” My question is this; why would you want to work with someone you cannot trust? I never cease to be amazed at the great number of leaders who believe they can operate effectively in the absence of trust. Let me make this as clear as I can – you cannot build a culture of leadership where trust is not valued, respected, and required.

My advice on trust is rather simple – if you have someone on your team you don’t trust, find a way to develop trust or replace them with someone with whom you can establish trust. Trust is far too vital to the health of an organization to be trivialized. Trust is not a commodity. Trust is not something to be dismissed as useless or irrelevant. Trust is the cornerstone of leadership. Without trust being both extended and received, leaders, teams, and ultimately organizations will fail.

True wisdom is not fleeting, and therefore the proof of real wisdom is found in its ability to stand the test of time. The phrase “A house divided against itself cannot stand” is most commonly referred to as a quote from a speech given by Abraham Lincoln. However the statement dates back much further in time to words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. I make reference to this truism only to validate the importance of trust and alignment in the context of leadership and teamwork. Trust must be both implicitly and explicitly present for leadership to be effective and for teams to thrive. As the statement above proves, this concept has been known to be true for centuries.

Time for a reality check, and here’s where things get a little tougher – there are only a few certainties in life, and sadly, having the trust you’ve placed in someone be abused is one of them. Moreover, either intentionally or unintentionally we have all broken trust with others at some point in our lives. We know how it feels to be on both sides of the equation – betrayal hurts, it’s not fair, it can create bitterness and resentment, it has huge ripple effects, it can rock your world. All of this said, wise people learn from their own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others. They especially use the most tragic of circumstances as teachable moments and learning opportunities. The issue isn’t whether or not you’ve made errors in judgment, or whether you’ve been wronged by others – we all have. The question is are you capable of doing the right thing so that you can learn, grow, develop, bridge gaps, and move foreword?

When it comes to the issue of broken trust there are really only three options: 1.) Repair it – understand why a breach occurred, find common ground, and gain/give assurances it won’t happen again; 2.) decide to live with a fractured relationship where trust is absent, or: 3.) decide to end the relationship. Leadership isn’t about being right, it’s about doing the right thing. Where this concept really gets put to the test is after YOU have made a mistake. I’ve always said the true test of a leader is what he/she does in the moments immediately after they realize they are wrong.

We need to keep in mind that all people make mistakes, and that mistakes alone don’t necessarily make you evil, they just make you human. That said, human nature is to be much quicker with forgiving ourselves than forgiving others. I’m not suggesting leaders should forgive all mistakes, but if leaders forgive no mistakes then people will cease taking risks, they won’t give their real opinions, and eventually they’ll stop making decisions. Be a leader who leads – not one who governs by creating a culture of fear.

While it is much easier to avoid disaster than it is to recover from it, perhaps the most important lesson is it’s not the mistake you make, but what you do with your life after the fact – will your mistakes define you as a failure and disgrace, or will they serve as the impetus to correct your thinking and actions such that you redefine yourself to become a better and more trustworthy human being? Don’t fear mistakes – fear not having the courage to make them. Leaders should be far more concerned with being wrong than they are being proven wrong.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on today’s post by leaving a comment below.


Mike Myatt
Mike Myatt

Mike Myatt is a leadership advisor to Fortune 500 CEOs and their Boards of Directors. Widely regarded as America’s Top CEO Coach, he is recognized by Thinkers50 as a global authority on leadership. He is the bestselling author of Hacking Leadership (Wiley) and Leadership Matters… (OP), a Forbes leadership columnist, and is the Founder and Chairman at N2Growth.

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