Bob MacDonald on Business

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Power is to Command as Trust is to Leadership

March 18th, 2013 · 12 Comments · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management, Improving Your Business Leadership, Politics and Politicians Gone Awry

With power, you can make others do things for you. With trust, others will want to do things for you.

The business world is fixated on power and leadership. For the denizens of the corporate conclave, the endgame is to achieve status as a powerful leader. In pursuit of this aspiration, many become addicted to the supposed performance-enhancing properties of power, because they are led to believe that with power comes coronation as a leader.

It is a false premise.

Leadership is incubated in an atmosphere of trust, not by the acquisition of raw power. No matter how much power one may have in hand, without trust it will in due course be nullified. At the same time, power born of trust will in the long run be magnified. Power is a license to command, but it is trust that bequeaths the power to lead.

A Surefire Political Promise Misfires

There is no better example of this than the 2012 presidential election. By all accounts Mitt Romney should have won; and, if the election had been a poker game, he would have. The cards held by Obama included a stagnant economy, distressfully high unemployment, a government in gridlock, out-of-control Trustdeficit spending and a skyrocketing national debt. No president had ever been reelected when the country faced such dreadful economic conditions. Against this, Romney held powerful cards that included a disenchanted populous, a sterling resume of success in both government and business and the unfettered backing of hundreds of millions of dollars from wealthy interests. And yet, Romney lost decisively. The reason for Romney’s loss will be debated for years, but those performing the autopsy can save their time. Romney lost for one simple reason: Trust trumps power.

The majority of American voters simply did not trust Romney. In the end, the people did not believe that Romney had their best interests at heart. And because of this, despite the pain and frustration they were feeling, no power on earth could convince them to vote for him. As a result, the one who seemed to have all the power on his side, ended up powerless. It may seem incongruous – especially to those preoccupied with power – but followers will sacrifice, endure hardship, distress and even the uncertainty of the future for a leader they trust.


American history serves up two validating examples of trust motivating followers to do what they would not do themselves and a willingness to accept uncertainty to follow a leader they trusted. George Washington has the worst won-loss record of any general in the history of America. His troops were asked to endure hardships that would be difficult to imagine: malnutrition, lack of basic fighting equipment, intolerable living conditions, and at times, miserably frigid weather, not to mention the ever-present possibility of maiming and even death on the battlefield. Yet troops willingly endured the unendurable when Washington asked. And there was but one reason for this: These soldiers implicitly trusted that Washington cared about their best interests. This trust allowed them to buy-in to Washington’s vision of freedom, no matter how distant, difficult or improbable it may have seemed at the time.

One hundred and fifty years later, in another time of crisis, a leader – Franklin Roosevelt – emerged to corroborate the power of trust. FDR became president at the very nadir of the deepest financial crisis in the history of the United States; when people were living at the corner of fear and despair. Radical times called for radical actions and Roosevelt was given the license to take on the traditional powers of the system, empowered by only one thing: the trust of the people that he cared for them, while others who had power did not. Despite the fact that the economy remained mired in depression, the people handily reelected Roosevelt three times, because he never lost their trust that he cared about the people first. (Roosevelt’s fourth election in 1944 was driven by the trust the people had in his conduct of the war.)

A Most Underrated Facet of Leadership

Trust is the most underrated aspect of a business or political relationship, even though its presence makes any effort possible, while its absence corrodes any relationship until nothing is possible. For the business leader, the most powerful residue of trust is flexibility. Trust encourages the followers to buy-in to the vision of the leader and to adopt it as their own. The trusted leader has the power to change and maneuver in response to a changing environment just so long as the vision and the actions that spawned trust remain consistent.

Trust creates the opportunity to lead because others will follow when they believe that what is being done is in their own best interests; even if they don’t Washingtonunderstand it at the moment. It is trust that pollinates the power of the leader. On the other hand, power without trust constricts power and limits options. If you need an example: Just ask the British in the American Revolution; the Communists in the Soviet Union and the Americans in Viet Nam. Power can command people to do as they are told, but it can never make them want to do it or more importantly, motivate them to do their best. This is left for the leader who has earned the trust of the followers.

Don’t get me wrong, power is important, but it is the subtle understanding of power that creates the powerful leader, not the possession of raw power itself. True leadership comes about when an individual uses the power vested in them to empower others to do what they never thought they could do. The most effective leaders use their power as solution facilitators rather than dictators of decisions. This viewpoint may differ from the old rule of leadership that positioned the leader as an all-powerful deity who rules with an intimidating iron hand. You will be more successful and trusted as a leader if you develop a style of management that provides the tools to others so that they might solve the problems and receive the credit for doing so.

Still, if trust is so important, the important question is this: What is it that engenders trust and makes someone a true leader?

The first step to building trust in any political or business relationship is to recognize that it is a process, not a procedure. Power can be mandated, but trust must be earned. True deep-seated trust cannot be achieved overnight, it must be cultivated and nurtured over time. It cannot be stressed enough that trust is the accumulated residue of transparency, openness, integrity, clarity of expression and – maybe most important – constancy of purpose and actions. Trust is the product of constantly and consistency demonstrating concern for the best interests of the followers. Attempting to lead from the basis of power without simultaneously building trust from those sought to be led is the prescription for both the loss of power and failed leadership.

The Moral of the Story …

Power alone – no matter how overpowering – does not define leadership. Trust bequeaths leadership and leadership based on trust creates power.

There are those – especially in business – who discount the need for trust. It is an attitude of, “Why do I need trust when I have power?” This type of arrogance ultimately brings about the loss of the power that created this attitude. The arrogance of power and the absence of trust breeds suspicion that causes followers to withdraw into a self-preservation cocoon that turns their efforts and interests away from organizational focus to a purely personal focus. And why not? Because that is the attitude they see from those in power. The reality is that a lack of trust for those in power eats away at the very soul of an organization in a way that paralyzes effort and diminishes success; often leading to the loss of power that was so cherished.

For those who seek power and desire to wear the mantle of leadership, the process starts by understanding and respecting that the basis of all real leadership and power is trust.

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