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You gotta have faith

24 June 2007
Vineet Nayar

A good leader is that most elusive of creatures - very difficult to pin down and fit within a paradigm or set parameters. The definition changes with social contexts, times and the demands of the economy. However, there are some things, which like diamonds, are forever. I was thinking back to my own early days and realised that the leaders who I felt were the best, were those who I could trust, have access to and those, who, when they talked of change, led from the front.

Trust, like reputation, is both tricky and sticky. Tricky, because it does not necessarily equate with performance and sticky, because like a good investment and indeed a reputation, it continues to give you dividends long after your initial investment. Of course like all investments, trust requires a fair amount of maintenance. You need to plough back what you have earned into your principal and keep adding to it. This is not to say that there aren't exceptions. A CEO who leads an unwilling but trusting team into say, a major change which backfires, is bound to come a cropper in the industry sooner rather than later, because of the level of either incompetence or perceived betrayal.

Yet trust is probably the single most important intangible element in a CEO's perceived profile, both within and without the organisation. Building trust does not just happen by standing up and saying "I am trustworthy"? - it requires consistently delivering what you promise and "not letting down the side"?.

But there is, unfortunately no formula for this. And for those who try to apply one, there is a warning. Remember the old saw about how you can tell if a man is honest and on the straight and narrow by his handshake? Do you want to guess how many crooks and conmen have heard that one over the years and worked on developing a "firm and manly handshake"? while looking you straight in the eye? All successful and smart crooks worth their salt have by now. Ergo, trust has to be built the hard way - it has to be earned, and earned over a period of time. And I cannot forget how Robert Galford and Anne Seibold Drapeau put it in The Trusted Leader, "There is no universally 'right way' to build trust in the long term"?.

But obviously, looking at the roster of successful leaders over the centuries, there has been a way to build trust both outside an organisation - and, this is important - within an organisation. A company's performance is a great way, if it is consistent, for building faith in it with the external public but it is simply not enough if the people who make up the organisation feel that you would sell them out to the highest bidder, metaphorically and literally speaking. They have to know that you will stand by them and the company. And this knowledge can only be built if you hold yourself accountable to your team. And true accountability will come only with transparency and the willingness to be evaluated on parameters that are common to you and your employees.

Remember, they have to know that they can trust you.