Leading with Trust

By Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta July 6, 2021

Machiavelli proposed nearly 500 years ago that public morality— the morality that should guide leaders—is different from the morality of private individuals because leaders have different responsibilities and powers.

Leaders have powers other people don't. They get to decide (or lead a process of deciding) what products or services a company will offer, how many people to employ and what kinds of jobs they will have, which suppliers to partner with, and even how to interpret laws and regulations. On the flip side, this also means leaders have to make difficult decisions that may mean causing harm in order to preserve the greater good. One senior executive told us, "The fair decisions are easy. My job is to make the difficult decisions."

Earning Trust

Because leaders have the responsibility of making decisions, leaders earn trust differently than organizations. Followers want first to know that a leader has earned her power legitimately, and second that she will use it well because she has the power to make decisions that will impact their careers and lives. They rely on their leader to make these difficult decisions with compassion and fairness.

The American philosopher John Rawls divided earning trust into two stages. First, there is "originating consent" where a leader first earns the trust of followers by acquiring power legitimately. Then there is what he calls "joining consent," the fact that people continuously assess whether they want to keep trusting a leader.

In the first stage of trust, originating consent, followers want to know that leaders acquired their role through the right process, fairly carried out. In other words, how, exactly, did a leader come into their role and get the power that comes with it? In democratic societies we recognize the result of an election by allowing the winning candidate to assume the job of mayor, governor, or president, for example. In corporations, the process is less visible: boards of directors appoint CEOs, and we allow them to lead our organizations.

Keeping Trust

The process of earning trust, however, does not end with originating consent. Earning trust does not just happen when a leader first acquires power. It's a status that is always being reassessed through joining consent; that is, trust needs to be earned over and over.

Leaders face an uphill battle when it comes to joining consent because it turns out that the very qualities that cause you to earn people's trust in the first place are easily destroyed by acquiring power. Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology who heads up the University of California–Berkeley Social Interaction Lab, has studied power for decades. He defines power as "one's capacity to alter another person's condition or state of mind by providing or withholding resources . . . or administering punishments."

Power is a paradox because the very behaviors that lead others to trust you with a position of power can be horribly transformed into behaviors that are the opposite of what people want in a leader. For instance, leaders often gain their power because of their willingness to listen to others, but once attaining it, they frequently downplay or even refuse to listen to dissenting voices. That is because being in a position of power affects both the way you see yourself and how others see you and the way you act.

Focusing on Others

In this view, the road to earning and maintaining power and ultimately trust is paved by actions that show care for others. Groups create leaders. They "give power to those who advance the greater good, construct reputations that determine the capacity to influence, reward those who advance the greater good with status and esteem, and punish those who undermine the greater good with gossip." Keltner's leaders demonstrate empathy, they give to others, and they show gratitude. If you want to get power, you need to be someone who values others, who cares about the greater good, and who can help a group succeed.

This transformation from a focus on others to a focus on yourself is also a concern of Adam Galinsky, professor of leadership and ethics at Columbia Business School. Galinsky and some colleagues conducted a deceptively easy-looking experiment to illustrate one of the worst effects of power on individuals, which is how it interferes with a person's ability to understand other perspectives. A key component of empathy, perspective-taking, is the proverbial ability to walk in another person's shoes, which means to be able to see, feel, and imagine how someone else experiences the world.

CEOs like Travis Kalanick from Uber and Tony Hayward from BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are first-rate examples of what leadership looks like under conditions of power-laced self-focus, an inability to empathize, and indifference to harm imposed in others.

What this comes down to is that as a leader at any level in an organization, or even in your personal life, you must be prepared for the internal battle that awaits. On one side is the focus on others and the good of the group—the actions and beliefs that enable people to gain power and the respect and admiration of others. On the other side, the well-documented finding that being in a leadership role will pull you toward a focus on yourself, and replace attention to others with an inability to care, understand or even be curious about the conditions of other people or groups, except those who serve your interests.

Excerpted from The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It by Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta. Copyright © 2021. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Sandra J. Sucher is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Power of Trust.

Shalene Gupta is a research associate at Harvard Business School and co-author of The Power of Trust. 

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