“We got to a point not based on a legal issue, but based on a trust issue [emphasis added], where a level of trust between the President and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change. … The issue here was that the President got to the point where General Flynn’s relationship – misleading the Vice President and others, or the possibility that he had forgotten critical details of this important conversation had created a critical mass and an unsustainable situation. That’s why the President decided to ask for his resignation, and he got it.”– Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer.
Figure 1 President Trump and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn
Although all the facts are not yet revealed on this politically-charged story of US President Trump’s National Security Advisor, retired US Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, it nevertheless illustrates the absolutely critical role trust plays in effective leadership. Lt. Gen. Flynn had a sterling military career, culminating as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency—a position of the highest trust. Flynn’s long experience in intelligence meant that he was entrusted with the United States’ most important secrets, and his rise to the top surely means that he carried that trust with great responsibility and skill. But trust requires constant vigilance, and as billionaire investor Warren Buffett once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” The latest hubbub occurred stemming from communications between Flynn and Russian officials, likely made as part of his preparations for assuming his role as National Security Advisor. Apparently, Lt. Gen. Flynn briefed Vice President Mike Pence on those communications, but in an incomplete or misleading manner. The problem was not in the fact that he communicated with Russians. The controversy, for Trump, has not been about the contents of the communication; it’s been about the transparency with which Flynn communicated to other members of the administration after the contacts. Did he lie? Not likely. But trust is much larger than just not lying. It’s about character, competence, and transparency in communication.
In my previous article, I pointed out several statistics about how untrusting the social and business environments are in both the US and Thailand. Can leaders take this trust-barren environment and create one where trust blooms again? Can broken trust be repaired?
The simple answer is Yes…but it takes time and conscious effort. Leaders engender trust when they consistently do what they say they will do, when they demonstrate to their followers that they sincerely care about their welfare, when they demonstrate competence, and when they are transparent about their motives and mistakes.
Authentic Leadership and Relational Transparency
A ‘musume’ or maiden puppet being operated by the puppet master and his two assistants. Source: https://www.japan-zone.com/culture/bunraku.shtml
Bunraku (文楽) puppet theater is an ancient Japanese tradition with interesting application to leadership. In Bunraku theater, which started in the beginning of the 17th century in Osaka, puppeteers manipulate their large, ornately dressed puppets while they remain in full view of the audience. The audience is expected to ignore the puppeteer (sometimes aided by the manipulators wearing black hoods), yet appreciate his art. This acceptance of illusion has been compared to various political situations in Japan. In the Heian period of Japanese history (794-1185), an emperor held predominant command, with military commanders under him. Toward the end of this era, however, powerful families, known as daimyos, with their loyal samurai retainers, jockeyed for control of central power as the emperor’s position gradually declined. Eventually, a figure from a dominant family, Minamoto no Yoritomo, would seize power and declare himself a Shogun; yet, the emperor was retained as a symbol of continuity.
Minamoto no Yoritomo, first shogun of Japan
Thus, the shogun became the puppeteer, maneuvering in full view on stage, while the regal emperor played the part of beautifully-appointed puppet. Ironically, at some periods of history, even the shogun would become a puppet of other actors manipulating the situation, visible yet hidden on the stage. The emperor (and later some of the shoguns) were simply symbols of leadership, with no real authority of effectiveness. They were not genuine, and no one would follow one who was not an authentic leader.
One increasingly popular idea in developing leadership is that of “Authentic Leadership.” Rooted as far back as Greek ethical writings, Authentic Leadership emphasizes the critical role of trust and honesty in making leaders legitimate and inspiring followers to improved performance. One of the four key components of Authentic Leadership is “Relational Transparency.” Relational transparency “refers to presenting one’s authentic self (as opposed to a fake or distorted self) to others. Such behavior promotes trust through disclosures that involve openly sharing information and expressions of one’s true thoughts and feelings while trying to minimize displays of inappropriate emotions.” Relational transparency would mean taking away the illusion of puppeteers manipulating events behind fancily-dressed objects. Have you ever dealt with people that seem to be hiding something behind their words? Do you ever wonder what your boss really means when she comments on your work? Or have you ever been shocked by a colleague revealing what he “really” thinks in a fit of anger over a circumstance that triggered his emotions?
Authentic Leaders self-regulate their emotions. (Source: http://giphy.com/gifs/getting-playlist-RRerwvHrb0nxm)
Relational transparency requires that no agendas be hidden. If you don’t reveal your intentions and agenda, your workers will likely fill in the blank with often the least flattering picture. Your intentions might indeed be self-serving, but it is better to be up front with your employees, explaining how they or the organization can also benefit. It is important as a leader to be open about the company’s and your goals. Keep promoting the Big Picture and always explain the “why” of things, and share information. I’ve met many bureaucrat types who see the information that they have as a sort of power, and they are unwilling to give up this “power” by sharing their information. Relational transparency also means that a leader can control his or her emotions—Self-Regulation is another key component of Authentic Leadership. It is important as a leader to pause and give thought to your communication. If you spout off with the first thought or emotion that comes to your mind, you may be “transparent” with your feelings, but you risk doing damage to a trust relationship. The bottom line here is that there is a balance between revealing your true and complete thoughts with followers, while not regurgitating your raw emotions or revealing things that are hurtful in a relationship.
In his world-renowned best seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen R. Covey calls trust “the highest form of human motivation.” He presents the idea of an “Emotional Bank Account” (which his author son, Stephen M. R. Covey, has further developed as a “Trust Account” in his excellent book The Speed of Trust) as a metaphor for how people build or destroy trust in each other. Certain behaviors can serve as trust deposits, while others withdraw trust—and it depends on each person, each situation, and can be culturally dependent. For example, if I as a foreign leader in Thailand show respect for Thai traditions, let’s say by allowing Buddhist workers time to make merit at a temple on a Buddhist holiday, that can serve as a deposit in my workers’ trust accounts. Sometimes, what we think might be a deposit in an account can actually be a withdrawal. Suppose that I single out a diligent worker from his peers and publicly reward him. If that worker is embarrassed, and more highly values being seen as “just one of the guys,” that action of separating him from his peer group, even if it is to praise him, may break down some of the trust he has in me. Relational Transparency, communicating openly, honestly, completely, without hidden agendas, will make deposits in just about every situation and culture. Failing to control one’s emotions, on the other hand, will almost surely withdraw from accounts.
Taking the idea of Trust Accounts further, we can see how having a high trust balance directly affects effective communication and negotiation with others. With a low balance of trust, cooperation is likely to be low, whether with colleagues, direct reports, or external shareholders. Communication will be defensive, and much time and effort will be spent covering one’s back so as not to be exposed to harm in an untrusting environment. As the trust level increases, through demonstration of good character and competency, cooperation increases to at least a polite and respectful level. Leaders who are able to self-regulate emotions and show relational transparency will be able to find ways to compromise and cooperate, and energy that was formerly used in self-protection can be turned toward finding solutions to mutual problems. When you get to high levels of trust and cooperation, communication becomes synergistic, fully focused on and enthusiastically finding creative solutions to problems or innovating new ideas.
The relationship of trust and cooperation and effect on communication. Adapted and expanded from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
To summarize, trust can be repaired or grown in a trust-barren environment. A first step is developing Relational Transparency. We don’t yet know the full story of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, but it’s safe to surmise that if there was full relational transparency in his communication with Vice President Pence, he would not likely have eroded the trust of President Trump and been asked to resign his position. Relational transparency is one way to start making deposits in the Trust Accounts of those with whom we work. As trust grows in relationships, energy is diverted from self-protection to innovation and creative problem solving. There are other tools to understand and grow trust, particularly related to leadership character and competency, with specific behaviors that we can use to grow or repair trust. We will address these in following articles. Stay Tuned!
 Kernis, M. H. 2003. Toward a conceptualization of optimal self-esteem. Psychological Inquiry, 14:1-26.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings