It’s a bad sign when a leader gets to the point where both friends and foes are asking, “What did he know and when did he know it?” That’s where President Obama is this week with lots of questions being raised about what and when he knew about big problems with the Healthcare.gov website launch and more than five years of NSA eavesdropping on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations.
While I don’t take pleasure in writing this, my guess is the questions being raised over the past couple of weeks mark the end of the President’s ability to get much done during the remainder of his term. The healthcare and Merkel stories both get down to whether or not Obama can be trusted. Which, by the way, is not at all the same thing as whether or not he is telling the truth. That may be part of it, but it’s definitely not all of it.
The problems the President is experiencing now are representative of the interplay of three critical ways that leaders either build or break trust with their followers. These three factors, first articulated by the linguist Fernando Flores, don’t just apply to top government leaders or big business leaders. They apply to any leader from moms and dads raising their kids to small business owners serving their customers to the leader of the Free World.
There are three simple, one word ideas that are easy to understand and remember. They’re critical for leaders that want to build trust and not break it. Here they are:
Sincerity: The big idea here is do followers believe that the leader really means what he or she is saying.
Credibility: This factor comes down to establishing a track record of doing what you said you were going to do. It also involves being open and honest when something goes wrong and clear about what you’re going to do to fix it.
Competence: This final factor is about demonstrating though your actions and results that you have the knowledge, skills, abilities and experience to deliver what you’re promising.
Sincerity, credibility and competence. By consistently demonstrating all three a leader builds and sustains trust. If a leader misses the mark on one or two of the factors but demonstrates contrition and a clear path to recovery the trust that is broken may be rebuilt. If all three are missed, trust may be irreparably broken. It’s almost impossible for a leader to rebuild trust when the followers have quit listening or believing.
What’s your take? What are the critical factors in how leaders build or break trust with their followers?