What is a leader’s biggest challenge? I’ll tell you what I think. It’s not a few specific behaviours that make a leader. Great leaders can and do behave differently. It’s not that they’re the best strategists or come up with the best answers. It’s really about people following them and the reasons why they follow.Here’s my answer. People mostly follow leaders because they trust them. What makes people trust or not trust someone? They trust because they believe the leader has their best interests at heart. What makes this such a difficult challenge is that most people have been let down— and led down the wrong path— too many times to fully trust that anyone else has their best interests at heart.
So, how do we earn someone’s trust? The simple answer is to be trustworthy. You know lots of ways to communicate your intention of being trustworthy. Let me remind you of one of these that I believe is the most powerful. It’s called “self-disclosure.”
Here’s a story to illustrate this point. I do an experiential learning process I call “The Anatomy of a Failure.” I had a group that just had finished a powerful high ropes course and were pumped up with how much they had learned about trusting each other. It was time to put that trust to a test. I asked them to remember a recent failure they had at work that, even at the smallest level, involved them all. It didn’t take them long to remember a software project that never seemed to get completed. The process required each member to take 100% accountability for this failure. The question they each had to answer was: “What did I do, or not do, that would have made even the slightest difference in preventing this failure?”
Of course, since leaders go first, the CEO, Jim, started the process and was very effective in setting the tone by reflecting on what his thoughts and behaviours were at that time. Jim’s modeling of being authentic about his own missteps gave everyone permission to follow his lead. They were excited as to how much they were learning about themselves and the team and about what the failure was teaching them.
The last person to speak was the project director. She looked Jim straight in his eyes as she confessed how sorry she was about her failure to go to Jim as soon as she began to realize the project was going south. She told him she was afraid to tell him because she knew how much he had counted on its success.
She was about to say more when Jim, with small tears in his eyes said, “Stop. Let me apologize to all of you for anything I’ve ever said or done that would make any of you afraid to tell me the truth or be afraid to tell me anything. I take 100 % accountability for that, and I give all of you full permission to let me know whenever I do something like that in the future.”
A few years later, Jim told me that this single, shared, significant emotional event of trust turned the team into the highest performing group in the whole company.
Jim has always been a great example of a great leader. What I took from this experience for all leaders is the value of being our true self, our authentic, fallible, human being self. The reality is that people admire us for our successes, but love us for our failures.
Haven’t we all discovered we learn more from our failures than from our successes?
How does self-disclosure enable others to trust you at a deeper level? Because it shows that you trust them with your truth. More trust means more willingness to follow you because they want to, not because they have to. Self-disclosure also allows you to show your strength by being vulnerable.
So leaders, open up, lighten up, and let go of any irrational fears of sharing the real you with those who really need to know the real you.