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What Leaders Can Learn About Trust from Vladimir Putin

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Given his track record in Crimea and Ukraine over the past several months, you wouldn’t think there is much that leaders could learn about trust from Russian President Vladimir Putin. The shoot down of the Malaysian Air flight, the Russian-backed rebels, the troops massed on the Ukrainian border, the government-stoked propaganda in Russian media and the current “humanitarian” convoy that the Russian army is driving into Ukraine have blown the international community’s trust in Putin out of the water.

So, what in the heck could a leader learn about trust from Putin? It’s one of those what-not-to-do kind of lessons. An article in the New York Times about Germany’s changing relationship with Putin sets the table for the lesson. A longtime German politician named Gernot Erler is quoted in the article. Erler has been working on establishing a stronger relationship between Germany and Russia for decades. He’s done with that. As he said in the article:

“The policy of Vladimir Putin is destroying reserves of trust with breathtaking speed. Russia is not naming its goals and has suddenly become unpredictable. And being unpredictable is the greatest enemy of partnership. Restoring trust will take time.”

And in that quote is the lesson about trust. People won’t trust you if you’re unpredictable.

As I’ve written here before, my favorite explanation of trust comes from Fernando Flores. He believes trust is dependent on three factors: Sincerity, Credibility and Competence. You could argue that when it comes to at least the first two of those three factors, Putin has proven to be predictably unpredictable.

Of course, most leaders aren’t in a position to disrupt the world order in the way that Putin has, but, within their own domain, they can either do a lot of good or damage in the way they build or break trust.

If you’re a leader (or parent or friend or co-worker), it might be really useful to ask yourself on a regular basis, “What am I doing to build or break trust?” Taking a look at your sincerity, credibility and competence are a good place to start the self-exam. For good measure, you might want to throw predictability into the mix.

What’s your take? What are the most impactful ways to either build trust or break it?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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