How trust, not power, is increasingly the currency of leadership

As business moves into a more social age, the responsibility for promoting trust has become fundamental not just for leadership, but for the overall health of a company’s single largest asset: its employees

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As baseball great Yogi Berra once said, “The problem with the future is that it ain’t what it used to be.” And the future world of the CEO will be very different from the one in which most CEOs have learnt their current leadership skills. Before the pandemic, the converging trends of technology, diversity and Gen Y were already disrupting the industrial age way of working. Now, the pandemic is further accelerating our journey into a different paradigm. A paradigm which some have referred to as the social age.

In this social age of business, trust, not power, will be the glue that holds us all together. As Stephen Covey commented in his recent article, ‘The New Role of Trust in the Pandemic’ – ‘Leaders today should be deliberately extending trust to their teams, because the currency of trust is the single most important asset they have…Trust is baseline humanity and we need it to solve our problems.’ So as we make this transition from the industrial age to the social age, leaders will need to unpick the old habits of power and learn new habits of trust, because only trust can provide the level of psychological safety that the modern stakeholder demands.

In my own research on trust at Aston Business School, I interviewed over 70 CEOs and surveyed over 500 board-level leaders. What this research revealed was that the biggest single factor in building a high trust culture was the behaviour of the CEO and the senior leadership team. More worrying, it also revealed the average CEO believes they are 29% more trustworthy than do the people they lead. I refer to this difference as the ‘authenticity gap’ – the risk that we think we are part of the solution, while those we lead believe we are part of the problem.

Trust, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Why does this matter? It matters because the final finding of my research was that over 80% of board leaders think a high trust culture is critical to attracting and retaining the top talent, building customer loyalty and achieving sustainable bottom-line performance.

Many of the CEOs I coach understand that the currency of their leadership is shifting from power to trust. The next question they ask is ‘how do I ‘DO’ trust?’. How do busy leaders break down this abstract, emotive word into a set of practical, tangible behaviours? Thankfully, I can now share with them an academically verified model of trust that consists of nine distinct habits grouped under three pillars. This model, arising directly from the research at Aston, is shown in the diagram.

Based on this model, the means of calculating the trustworthiness of your leadership, your team or your brand is shown in the formula;

‘Trustworthiness = ability x integrity x benevolence’

When I share this formula with the CEOs I coach, most instinctively understand the need for the six habits of ability and integrity, but few have a grasp of this word ‘benevolence,’ which means wishing well for others. Benevolence is human care, compassion and kindness. In the old world of power, benevolence was a nice-to-have. In the new world of trust, benevolence is the must-have differentiator that renews our licence to lead.

The three habits of benevolence are evangelise, be brave, be kind. These three habits are particularly important as CEOs look to satisfy the demands from investors to address Environmental, Societal and Governance concerns.

CEOs need to evangelise a vision for their businesses that goes beyond the single bottom line of profit and embraces the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet. They need to show kindness to recognise the needs of a diverse and inclusive world. For example, leaders now need to respond to the mental health needs of their employees in a way that would have seemed unimaginable 10 years ago. Finally, CEOs are required to be morally brave to speak out on issues of social justice. Whether it be the #metoo movement, Black Lives Matter or the recognition of the LGBT+ community, CEOs must have a voice on topics that would have previously been ‘off-limits.’

So are you one of these future CEOs? Do you have the will to renew your licence to lead in a world where trust not power is the currency of leadership? Can you do benevolence, alongside ability and integrity? If the answer to these questions is an emphatic ‘yes’, then you will be glad that the future ain’t what it used to be. You will be glad because, in the social age, you have found yourself in exactly the right place at precisely the right time.