Monday, November 9, 2009

First Time - Part 2: Loyalty, Honesty, Trust

Before we go any further, let’s just say a few words about a subject that comes up often in discussions on leadership and is, sadly often presented completely wrong. I’m talking about three traits of the relationship between a leader and his team, traits that might be said to be different facets of the same precious stone: Loyalty, Honesty and Trust.

The truth is you can lead without these three traits; people do it every day. Worse, you can do it by ‘faking it,’ living the lie about these three traits, acting the part, but not believing in it and going back on your word in private. That’s possible too, and I see it regularly.

But you will never develop a superior organization, and you will become a great leader without truly practicing these three traits.

Loyalty. I have repeatedly heard people talk about how to instill loyalty among ‘the troops.’ The fallacy there is that loyalty does not work up an organization, it works down an organization. You really can’t ‘instill loyalty’ among the troops. You have to be loyal to your people, not the other way around. If you expect them to be loyal to you, you will be sadly disappointed. If, on the other hand, you are loyal to them, the team will reward you tenfold in both support and performance.

Honesty. It has been said that honesty is the best policy. That is unquestionably true. Be honest with your people. Don’t keep bad news from them, and don’t treat them like children. You should not only communicate with them honestly, you must fully insist that they honestly communicate with you. Which means you must never shoot the messenger. Insist on honesty at all times, no matter how painful. The more you insist, the more likely they are to tell you about a problem early, when it can be fixed, rather than delaying, and letting the problem fester. It’s been said that the boss who insists on loyalty will get honesty instead, but that the boss who insists on honesty will get loyalty. It’s a good point.

Trust. Trust is the gold standard of leadership. You have to trust your people to do what you tell them. There are some obvious reasons for this. First, you can’t be everywhere at once. And the bigger your organization grows, the more senior you become, the more impossible it becomes to do everything or to oversee everyone. Trying to do so will wrap the organization up in needless and unproductive reports on performance and inspections of activities. Second, a lack of trust poisons the organization, sending the signal to all that it really doesn’t matter what they say or do; someone will be looking over their shoulders to second guess them. And once you have ‘sent out’ that signal, it is remarkable how difficult it is to clear the air. Third, if you are doing your job correctly, you will have communicated the mission and trained your people so that they can execute the mission.

Great leaders – really great leaders – recognize that they are not only not irreplaceable, but that they must make it clear throughout the organization that they are replaceable. A great leader sets up his organization and trains and educates his people so that the organization can continue on and achieve its goals whether he – the leader – is present or not. That requires that he not only train and educate, but that he completely trusts them to do the right thing.

More than the most overbearing boss you will ever meet, the people who work ‘for’ you will judge you every day. Every single day they are going to look at you and make an assessment. If you fail in nearly every other thing, but hold to these three traits, they will follow you ‘into a burning building dressed in a gasoline suit.’ But, as the Good Book says, if you can’t trust someone in a small thing, then you certainly can’t trust them in a big thing. If you fail simple tests of honesty, loyalty and trust, ‘your’ people will do what you tell them, but nothing more. And you will eventually fail as a leader.

Loyalty, Honesty, Trust. These three traits form the keystone to motivating the people who work for you. In the end, most people will see through all the smoke screens and masks. What they are looking for is loyalty, honesty, and trust. Practice them early and continually, make them part of everything you do, and they will become part of your fundamental leadership skills.


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