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"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives."
--William A. Foster
Focus on Leadership- Leader Job #1: GUARDIAN -- Establishing Trust
By Kim McKinnon, PhD

Author's note: This is the second in a six-part series focusing on some of the latest things we know about effective leadership - recent research, best practices and a specific approach leaders can use to improve their own effectiveness.

Can those who work for you trust you? Are you someone who can be counted on? Do you always do what you say you will do? Being able to respond with a confident "Yes!" is a good measure of whether you will succeed in the first foundation role of the leader. This first role is to be a "Guardian" - a protector, a sentinel - a person whose behavior establishes an environment of trust. If you are not able to establish trust, you are not able to be a leader. You may have the title and people may be required to do what you ask, but without trust you will have disqualified yourself from experiencing true success as a leader - engaged employees, high performing teams, close relationships and, perhaps, even enjoyment at work.

As mentioned in the first part of this series, really good leaders tend to be good in five key areas. These areas are so important that we've given them the special name - we call them, "The Fundamental Five."

  • Guardian - establishing TRUST
  • Navigator - clarifying PURPOSE
  • Coach - building engaged PEOPLE
  • Architect - strengthening TEAMWORK
  • Revolutionary - leading CHANGE
Although really good leaders make progress in each of these areas regularly, there is a preferred sequence to follow - and key to the sequence is that TRUST must exist before we can be successful in the other areas.

Prove It! -- What Research Tells Us…

In their research around effective leadership, James Kouzes and Barry Posner checked-in with thousands of "followers" and asked them to identify the characteristics that they "look for and admire in their superiors." After receiving an almost overwhelming 225 different items, they summarized these desired traits into a 20-item survey and asked more than 20,000 people on four continents to rank them in order of importance. The results were interesting and very consistent - the top three items were always:

  • Honest 88%
  • Forward-Looking 75%
  • Inspiring 68%
Although sometimes the percentages varied a little, "Honest" was always rated first and was always rated much higher (more than 10% points) than the second item. You can be confident that the people who work for you are just like those who took the survey - they want to know that you can be believed - that you are honest with them -- that you can be trusted to do what you say you will do.

Establishing TRUST: Give Away Respect and Receive Trust in Return

There are three ways that really good leaders earn trust from others - all have to do with showing respect. Specifically, really good leaders:

  1. Respect themselves
  2. Respect others with whom they work
  3. Respect the organization they represent
Let's briefly review some specific things that good leaders do in each of these areas:

  1. Respecting Yourself

    When Emerson wrote, "Self-trust is the first secret to success," he was focusing on the innate desire we all have to be confident in our abilities. Of course, being able to respect ourselves means that we are proud of how we are living our lives. When we function in the role of a leader, there seems to be a strong relationship between self-respect and certain practices. Specifically, it seems that leaders who have a genuine respect for themselves consciously invest time in -

    Knowing Themselves: they've learned about their strengths and style through some kind of survey like the Myers-BriggsType Indicator, the DiSC or the EQi (emotional intelligence) and they use this information to interact more effectively with others.

    Developing Themselves: they have an on-going leader development plan which enables them to constantly improve. They read books, take classes, perhaps teach classes, volunteer to take on challenging assignments, work at relationships that may not be as effective as they could be.

    Modeling the Highest of Ethical Standards: leaders who really respect themselves live their lives and lead in ways which are beyond reproach. They have a reputation, based on time and experience, of being very honest - and being very worthy of trust from others. There are no cut corners, no questionable practices - instead we see open discussions about possible gray areas, light is shown on issues which may not be clear and changes made when past problems come to light.

  2. Respecting Others

    Borrowed from the Indian philosopher HH Tejomayananda is the counsel to leaders that they, "Respect, don't suspect." Unfortunately, we have internet websites, regularly appearing news stories and even contests heralding findings about the "Worst Boss," "The Meanest Manager," and surveys for leaders to complete so they can learn if they qualify as "Jerks" (The Jerk Test). These are all indicators that at least some leaders have forgotten the definition of a leader shared earlier - "A person who influences others to get things done." Influencing people in ways which are disrespectful are never acceptable. Excerpts from one source describes how some leaders - in this case, the highest executive at these organizations - seemed to forget that they should respect - and not suspect.

    "High IQ, very abrasive. I've never met a man with so many creative ideas; misses the opportunity to get input from people who don't have the courage to [challenge] him; working with him is like a war."

    "Brilliant, and difficult to work for; the quickest, sharpest mind in the industry; a tremendous mistake to push him on anything; get mad and get even is his motto."

    "Unable to communicate or praise people; the smartest guy I've ever met in our industry, but cold and, some would say, ruthless; not much room for original thought at his company."

    These descriptions seem to have at least two common themes - these are very intelligent people and yet these are also very disrespectful people. Good leaders understand that they can be both intelligent and respectful of others. This does not mean that good leaders neglect to do their duty to make difficult decisions when such decisions are required. Good leaders may very well make the decision to fire someone, to cut budgets, to cut staff, etc. - yet they do their best to deliver difficult news in as respectful a way as possible.

    Perhaps the best way to summarize this section is to borrow a "rule" from our "2020 Leadership" seminar. That rule is: "Don't be a Jerk." It seems to be easy to remember and is often repeated by those who participate in our training. And following the advice has helped a number of leaders change the way they work with others.

  3. Respecting Your Organization

    Losing respect from others sometimes comes from surprising places. The area of demonstrating - or too often - not demonstrating respect for your organization is one of these areas. The single, most important thing that good leaders seem to understand, that some who aren't so effective may not even realize, comes from being clear about your responsibility as a leader in your organization. The best counsel in this area can be summarized in this advice:

    "Accept your responsibility as a leader in the organization."

    Although at first glance this advice may seem pretty obvious and even somewhat bland, the truth is that many people in leadership roles do not accept responsibility as a leader in their organization. By far, the most frequently encountered example of this "respect-destroying behavior" comes when leaders tell their employees that they Do Not support the decisions of higher management. Perhaps you have heard words similar to "They say we have to do this-I don't agree with it nor do I understand why they would make such a dumb decision."
A few comments on this comment:

  • As a leader in the organization - you are part of "THEY." If you don't act as such, you are rejecting your leadership responsibility as well as your ability to influence employees.
  • Your employees want to know the real story about what's going on. If you admit that you don't understand "management's rationale," you have admitted that you have not done your homework - you haven't sought the information required to explain the real story to those you lead.
  • Employees want you to be a member of management - they want you to represent them to those who work at higher levels. They don't need another "buddy" with whom to commiserate - they already have each other; they want you to be different.
  • If you really can't support the decisions of those who function at higher levels in the organization, you should:
    • respectfully challenge such decisions OR
    • leave the organization.
This is part of being honest.

To conclude this section on your role and responsibility to be a Guardian by establishing trust on a positive note, the good news is that there are many, many leaders who have been extremely successful in this area. They have worked, usually for some period of time, to demonstrate respect for themselves, for others and for their organization. You can be successful by using this same approach.

Next time we will focus on the leader's role as a Navigator - the person who "Clarifies Purpose."

Kim McKinnon, PhD is a leadership development consultant and executive coach in the Phoenix area. In addition to his consulting, he also is on the faculty at Arizona State University and the Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara. Kim can be reached at: McKinnonConsulting@Cox.Net or through his website: McKinnonConsulting.Net.
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