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Egypt: When Trust Fails, Leaders Fail!

The historic events in Egypt show the importance of trust to a leader’s effectiveness.  As I tweeted last week: The events in Egypt have me thinking about the importance of trust. People are not inspired to follow leaders that they do not trust. From the various media interviews, it is clear that the concessions the autocratic President Mubarak made were insufficient to many in Egypt.  Those protesting did not trust him to keep his word and they did not trust his motives.  He was no longer credible as a leader and they refused to follow his leadership!

The events in Egypt are instructive because they point to the importance of  integrity and consistency for leadership.  Both are components of trust.  The late management guru, Peter Drucker, explained it best:

Trust is the conviction that the leader means what he or she says.  It comes from consistency and integrity. – Drucker

Trust is a fragile asset for leaders that is full of contradictions:  it is difficult to obtain but it is easily destroyed;  it is easy to damage but very hard and at times impossible to repair.  Trust is also the essential component of the emotional contract between leaders and their followers.  When leaders violate the trust of their followers, they break the emotional contract.  When trust fails, it does not matter how effective a leader is in his communication style, his ability to motivate others, and his overall leadership style.  All of these other strengths are irrelevant when a leader is viewed as no longer trustworthy.

The emotional contract between leaders and followers upon which trust is built is like any other contract.  It has specific provisions to capture the special relationship between the parties and it has basic provisions that are standard for all contracts.  Specific provisions will vary but four basic provisions of the emotional contract that all followers want from their leaders are the following:

Walk the Talk

Inconsistency between what a leader says and requires of others and what he does himself undermines the trust of followers.  Followers expect leaders to live by their words. When leaders do otherwise, followers question the future actions and words of leaders and trust is damaged.

Do Not Abuse Power

Leadership gives some individuals power over many other individuals.  It also  provides a great challenge that many leaders have failed.  In 1887, the historian, Lord Acton noted the failure of many great leaders as follows: All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Followers expect leaders to act with integrity and not abuse their position of power. When leaders do otherwise through accumulated exploitative and oppressive acts, followers question leader integrity and trust is often destroyed.

Keep One’s Word and Communicate Honestly

This is the legacy of earlier times when a person’s word meant everything.  In a time when people routinely make promises they have no intention of meeting, keeping one’s word seems old fashioned.  For leaders however, keeping their word and communicating honestly are critical to maintaining the trust of followers.  Because leaders have power to produce results,  followers expect leaders to keep their word and communicate honestly.  When leaders do not, trust is destroyed.

Act in the Best Interests of the Enterprise

Leader actions should align with what is in the best interest of the enterprise.  Followers understand that difficult actions have to be taken at times.  The evaluation is whether or not the leader’s action is truly in the best interests of the enterprise or is it in the best interest of the leader.  When a leader takes actions that are in his own best interests at the expense of the enterprise, followers rightly question their continuing allegiance to the leader.  Trust becomes damaged or destroyed.

It is easy to see how President Muburak failed these basic provisions of his emotional contract with the citizens of Egypt.  However, the question for all other leaders–organizational and otherwise– is the following:

How often do leaders violate the emotional contract with their followers upon which trust is built?

When trust fails, leaders fail!

Written by Robert Tanner | Copyrighted Material | All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Robert Tanner, MBA

Welcome to my leadership blog. I'm the Founder & Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, a certified practitioner of psychometric assessments, and a former Adjunct Professor of Management. As a leadership professional, I bring 20+ years of real world experience at all levels of management.

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