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Leadership Development: The Importance of Trust

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Early in my leadership career, I was at a dinner with about 100 other Air Force officers. The speaker that evening was Colonel Mal Wakin, a long-serving professor at the Air Force Academy. The subject was ethics.

Col Wakin presented an interesting question. There had been a cheating scandal at one of the military academies. His question was simply, why was this national news when cheating was known to be happening on campuses across the country. His answer, which I’ve pondered for years since, was simply that the country expects more from its military academies than other institutes of higher learning. The military produces leaders, and leaders are held to a higher standard.

It’s a lesson that all leaders must understand. The people you lead hold you to a higher standard and they deserve the truth. As a leader, you must provide nothing less. The trust they place in you is fragile and easily lost. Once lost, it will likely never be regained.

How can you, as a leader, gain and keep the trust of the people on your team?

1. Always tell the truth. This is basic, yet often overlooked. A leader I was working with recently told me that a small lie was okay. When I asked him to define a small lie, he saw the problem. What the leader may see as a small lie may be perceived by team members as a much bigger issue. Even small lies chip away at a leader’s credibility.

2. Admit mistakes. Face it, we’re all human and we all make mistakes. A leader lives in a fishbowl, making it very hard to cover up those mistakes. Your team probably knows what you did, or will soon. Again, your credibility is damaged when you try to ignore or cover the error.

3. Be yourself. Leaders stumble when they try to be something they are not. I found this out when as a new leader I tried to present myself as more experienced than I really was. My leadership team quickly corrected my error. It’s interesting that when you present yourself as something you aren’t, the team will reject what you are. When you present yourself as who you really are, you’re team will help you become what you want to be.

Whether you like it or not, if you’re a leader, your team holds you to a higher standard. It is up to you whether you strive to live up to that higher standard, but remember – once you lose their trust, you likely will not get it back.

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