Humility Breeds Trust

March 8, 2010

Since so many CEO failures are caused by failure to put the right people in the right job, and the related failure to fix people problems in time, the big question is, why do such smart people make such bad decisions?

One reason is approaching the problem and believing that you already know the solution. Starting with a full mind leaves no room for new perceptions. Performance is highly linked to how much trust is in the DNA of the culture. And we know more about how to destroy that trust than we know how to build it.

Most people’s default is to trust others and to expect to be trusted. They assume that everyone is headed in the same direction, toward the achievement of the vision. Then they crash into someone who neither respects nor returns that trust. They have their first experience of disenchantment.

Sometimes it’s the rigid, Machiavellian boss who promises you’ll get to try your wings on an exciting project and then clips them mid-air. Sometimes it’s the co-worker who has little original thinking but is happy to take credit for your work.

If you want to lead a trust-based organization, you should start by focusing on bottom-line results. If you believe the hype about leaders, you’ll think that all it takes is a lot of charisma and a great story. That helps. But neither vision nor execution alone gives you bottom-line results—they require vision plus planning plus execution plus follow through.

You can’t do all that yourself. No one can focus on all of these at the same time and accomplish anything. Teams can achieve what an individual cannot, but only if there is diversity of style and focus, and a leader who realizes that no one can be everything. Humility will keep you from flying into the sun, unlike poor Icarus who was gifted with many qualities of leadership — save the humility that would have allowed him to listen to others who warned him that things were going to heat up far beyond his control.

Here are some suggestions for building your trust-based organization:

  • You don’t have to be a member of a 12-step program to take a fearless inventory. Is your default arrogance or humility? Do you know how you affect those who work with and for you?
  • Remember to balance the needs of the organization with the needs of the people. You won’t know what those needs are unless you know people as individuals and understand what motivates them. A good measure of your humility will be your lack of surprise when you realize that what motivates you most is not necessarily what motivates them most.
  • Understand that there is great value in the diversity of other people’s styles and roles. People who don’t think the way you do are tremendously valuable to you in solving problems and coming up with innovative ideas. Listen carefully to all of them, and understand each point of view and carefully consider it even if, at first, you don’t agree with it. If you turn it down, do it with respect and gratitude for their act of trusting you with it.
  • Earn the best team you can get. Engage them in your process — vision, execution, evaluation — and make it a living process. Set team goals that are challenging but attainable and lavishly reward the entire team for achieving them. Rewards can be non-financial and just as effective as long as they are oriented to what motivates each individual.
  • Remember your origins. You were not born to lead at birth. Someone trusted you. Now it is your turn to trust and to be trustworthy. The further you get from your origins, the further from Earth you will fly until, like Icarus, you are left with no supports, and your fall is inevitable.

This piece was originally published by Leadership Excellence magazine.

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One Response to “Humility Breeds Trust”


  1. Yes, I said better. Life is the result of many choices. Choices that seem natural, easy and deserving are quite often not the best. I know it’s hard but sometimes we have to reverse the way we think, choose to go a different direction, act in a new way so we can get a better result. God’s ways are not always our first choice. We would rather be angry than forgive, worry instead of trust, control rather than yield. I can guarantee that your life would be so much better if you would switch it around and forgive, trust and release!


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