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Ask EIG: Are You a Leader With 'The Goods'?

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I was just reading an article about why the Australian swim team did not do well in the 2012 Olympics.  They only won one gold medal whereas in prior years they have had many.  The article had a statement I found interesting: “Participants reported that in the zealous and streamlined attempts to obtain gold medals, the delicate management of motivation, communication and collaboration were lost."  How does a leader accomplish this delicate management especially once it has been lost?  We [in government] of course do not strive for gold medals but there is certainly a lack of trust so that even when there is communication people are skeptical. 

--Anonymous

With furloughs beginning in some cantons of the government, cost of living adjustments nullified for the third year in a row and public servants often vilified in the news, trust is, and if not should be, near the top of every government leader’s organizational concerns.  Even if the environment around you and your organization undermines trust that comes from the structure of our political and governmental institutions, the wise leader can still build, maintain, and repair interpersonal trust within their own organization and community.  That said, once trust is lost, especially in the leader, regaining it is unlikely except under rare conditions.

When people say that they trust someone, they typically are using a short hand to describe that they expect someone to have the “goods”:  good character, good will, and good ability. 

  1. Good character comes from the integrity of being true to your word—when you give your word you will follow through and, if for some external reason you can’t, you will let people know immediately and figure out what you can do to make up for it.
  2. Good will means that you predictably care for others and act to support them and do the fair thing even when costly to you. 
  3. Good ability comes from demonstrating your capability to achieve successful outcomes for your customers and organization.

Leaders who consistently demonstrate these three goods build a reputation for trustworthiness.  Such reputations do not get built over night and therefore, when achieved, should be cultivated and maintained as valuable leadership capital.

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While trustworthiness can be cultivated and is durable, it also can be destroyed quickly if any of the three goods become “bads”.  I use the word “can” because sometimes decisions and events happen outside of the control of a trusted leader.  If people believe that the bad things that happened are not the fault of the leader then trustworthiness of the leader is not diminished.  For instance, President Obama unilaterally decided to provide a cost of living adjustment to federal workers that Congress ultimately overruled.  If government workers saw the President’s decision as following through on his words of support for public servants, caring for them, and demonstrating his capability for delivering an adjustment but also viewed Congress’ decision as being beyond his control then workers might maintain or increase their view of the President’s trustworthiness.  Alternatively, those who view the President’s decision as insincere, offering the increase as a way to force Congress to eliminate the adjustment so that they would look bad, and ultimately failing to deliver a cost of living increase then his trustworthiness would be diminished.  As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so too do increases or decreases in trust depend on how actions and outcomes are viewed by the members of the leader’s community. 

That said, people are smart and through repeated experiences with a leader they update their assessment of a leader’s trustworthiness.  After losing a little trust, you can rebuild it with constancy of the three goods.  But, if much trust is lost, rebuilding it within the same community can be practically impossible as smart people have long memories when it comes to bad actions and outcomes.

As with the Australian Olympic Swim team, if much trust is lost in a leader there only can be two paths forward to rebuild trust—change the community or change the leader.  Only through changing one or the other can the gateway and path to trust and trustworthiness be reopened.

For government leaders, many actions and outcomes beyond your direct control are currently swirling around you—deficits, sequestration, continuing resolutions, political jockeying, etc.  In these times of uncertainty, change, and undesirable actions and outcomes, maintaining the trust of your community is vital if you are to remain an effective leader.  To do so, focus on the three goods:

  • Tell your community what is going on, directly and without delay.  Engage them in conversation so they know what you say, what you promise, and what you can’t affect.  Doing so will enhance how people view your integrity. 
  • Consistently care for your community even when it means that you must sacrifice.  Doing so solidifies perceptions of your good will. 
  • Deliver successes based on what you say you will do--don’t disappoint or over deliver.  Doing so builds your community’s confidence in your abilities.

Duce a mente (May you lead by thinking),

Jackson Nickerson

In partnership with Brookings Executive Education, Excellence in Government is now taking, and answering, your most difficult management questions. Send your questions to AskEIG@govexec.com.

Jackson Nickerson is the Frahm Family Professor of Organization and Strategy at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, the Associate Dean and Director of the Brookings Executive Education, and a Senior Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. An award winning researcher and teacher, Jackson specializes in leadership, strategic and critical thinking, leading change, and innovation. While in a prior life he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he now advises government agencies, not-for profits, and for-profit businesses on ways to improve performance. He is the author of Leading Change in a Web 2.1 World.

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