Column: how do you build trust as business leader?
By Jung Dong-il
Before the days of movie and sports stars, some of the best entertainers were those who did the most dangerous things in life such as escaping from vaults and swinging on the flying trapeze. One of the most famous of all was a man by the name of Charles Blondin (1824-1897). He was a French tightrope walker and entertained the world with amazing skills.
He shocked the world by trying to cross Niagara Falls on a 3-inch rope stretching 1,100 feet at a height of 160 feet. When he was successful, he gave himself an even bigger challenge by crossing Niagara Falls backwards, blindfolded, and pushing a wheelbarrow among others.
On September 15, 1860, before crossing the rope, he turned to the cheering crowd and shouted, “Do you believe I can carry someone across the rope on my back?” The crowd roared and said, “Yes, we believe you certainly can!”
Then, Charles Blondin said, “Who will volunteer? Anyone willing to climb on my back and cross Niagara Falls?” The crowd became silent. When he was searching for a volunteer, everyone avoided making an eye contact with him.
After he realized that there wouldn’t be any volunteer, he pointed out one man and said, “Will you trust me?” The man replied, “I will.”
The man then proceeded to climb on the back of Charles Blondin. Both men began crossing and the crowd watched breathlessly as Blondin walked across one dangerous step after another. He appeared to be more determined to cross Niagara Falls than usual since he knew that the man on his back gave him his life by trusting his ability. When they crossed all the way to the end successfully, the crowd roared. (What they didn’t know was that the man who crossed on Blondin’s back was Harry Colcord. He was Blondin’s manager.)
This story demonstrates a very important principle in leadership. That is, the Charles Blondin story teaches us what trust actually is in reality. The crowd had watched his performance. And they said that they believed. But, their actions proved they actually didn’t. The moral of the story? Trust is not in the talking. It is in the acting.
Perhaps, trust is the single most important word in leadership. There are several reasons for this. First, you have to take your followers to unknown territories under highly uncertain circumstances. Second, you need to convince your followers that it is okay (even beneficial) to give everything they have to you and your company. Third, your followers must believe you will do everything you can first before they do.
Therefore, if you want to assess whether you are a successful and effective leader, you can simply ask your followers whether they trust you as a leader before you utilize lots of scientifically sophisticated leadership assessment tools.
Then, how do you increase a sense of trust among your followers? There are several things you can try. First, the best way to establish trust is to practice leading-by-example. According to a survey done by Opinion Research Corporation, leading-by-example was considered to be the most desirable leadership characteristic by followers. Not charisma, not strategic capabilities, nor communication skills.
Second, you need to lead your followers through well-defined core values. Values tell you what is right and wrong and what is desirable and undesirable. Well-defined and well-practiced core values can make your behavior as a leader consistent and predictable, which establishes an important basis for trust. No wonder why 809 employees surveyed by Job Korea in 2010 said that the most trustworthy leader they wish to have was someone whose behavior was consistent in work assignment, performance appraisal and reward distribution among others. Consistent behaviors mean consistency across different situations as well as across different times.
Finally, personal sacrifice can make you a trustworthy leader. Followers won’t give you any respect when they perceive you as someone who is preoccupied with your own skill development and success. Do you remember what Mel Gibson said to his soldiers in the movie “We Were Soldiers?” When he was about to take his men into the battle zone, he said,
“We’re going into battle against a tough and determined enemy. I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home alive, but this I swear, before you and before almighty God: that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field, and I will be the last to step off. And I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together.”
You will gain their trust and respect as a leader by giving up.
It seems that trust among followers toward their leader is the scarcest asset these days.
Jung Dong-il is a professor of management at Yonsei University. He teaches leadership and strategic thinking.