The Secret of High-Trust Leadership

by Joe DiSabatino

A good friend of mine, C., was the manager of the human factors group for a telecommunications software engineering company. Her boss called her aside one day. It turned out that the CEO of the company had noticed and complained that a number of her team members were regularly seen hanging around, small-talking in one office. That's not what he was paying them to do, the CEO complained. Didn't she notice what was happening? Her boss instructed C. to pass on the reprimand and see to it that the situation improved.

C. knew her team was a bright, highly productive group. They were also mostly new hires, just forming their sense of team and how they would work together. The timing for this type of reprimand was lousy. She didn't want to do it, but she knew she had to do something.

She called her group together, and began with, "I know you're a great team and you've done everything I've asked you to do, oftentimes more." She then described the issue to them without criticism, saying that there was a problem in how they were being perceived by the CEO, that it was serious, and that it needed to be cleared up immediately.

Instead of warning them, she asked them to come up with the best course of action to change their boss' perceptions, so he would get a more accurate picture of the hard work they are actually doing. Rather than get defensive or hurt, the team took up the challenge and together they found a set of solutions that worked beautifully. The best part for C. was that a potential trust-damaging episode actually improved her credibility with her team. And in fact it improved her respect for them, as well.

After the success of her managerial experiment, she decided to relate to her team all the time in that way. "Whether things are going well or not", she told me, "I've let go of 'I know best, here's what you should do', and instead I've embraced, 'You're excellent, I'm proud of you, and here's a problem we're facing, so let's brainstorm together.'" It wasn't always as directly spoken as that, but as a general place to come from, she found it very powerful.

Doing this had a strong impact on the quality of their work and productivity, she discovered. Enough to get noticed. A few months after C. started this form of trust-building with her team, her boss one day called her a "natural manager", something he had never said to her before in five years with the company.

Some time later, when the telecommunications industry slid into decline, all thirty engineers and the entire support staff for her office were let go, leaving only her team left. "We were absolutely stunned. They basically kept the office open just for the five of us to keep doing our work. Ordinarily an R&D group like ours would be let go first, yet here we were. I think it was because we listened, took challenging problems and came up with creative solutions for the company. It really wasn't me, it was them."

There are some good lessons in this story about creating high-level trust. Trust, like all other worthwhile qualities, comes in degrees. My interest is helping leaders take their capacity for inspiring trust to the highest possible level. When C. said, "... here's a problem we're facing, let's brainstorm together", she hit on a powerful source of inspired leadership. She had discovered that her unique gift as a leader was giving people the room to find their own greatness.

Every leader will have something different to offer. To get at your own version of what C. had hit on, ask yourself this question: what qualities do I bring to my leadership role that make me unique at what I do? These are the qualities that you feel are important to share. Sometimes they are the way you often wish others would treat you (rather than the way they do). They will nearly always also be the qualities that are responsible for your professional and economic success.

What do I mean by qualities? I'm talking about the particular life-enhancing virtues that you give to people at work when you are operating at your best as a leader. People will feel most inspired by your leadership guidance when you're simultaneously drawing on your personality strengths, your core values, and your expertise. For some leaders it is their sense of humor that inspires, for others it is caring, or thoroughness, poise under pressure, unflagging enthusiasm, or the ability to help people think creatively or to discover their greatness.

A good way to identify your unique leadership gift is to remember a specific time at work when you felt particularly good about what was happening between you and a person or team you manage, or between you and your boss. Try to identify the positive inner qualities these people were receiving from you at the time that met their needs and made them feel good about you.

Perhaps their confidence or peace of mind or ability to see light at the end of the tunnel went way up as a result of what you said and did. Is this something that people receive from you when you are at your best? If so, then that's your gift.

Keep this alive in as many ways as you can. So if you identified something like "I'm great at supporting creative business people who want to turn their bold ideas into marketable products", then why not add that phrase to the way you think about your current job or position? "As the Director of New Product Development I actually get paid to do what I love the most – helping a team of creative business people keep their confidence and vision alive through the difficult process of turning great ideas into marketable products."

You see the difference? You are shining the light on the very thing that makes you great – the unique gift that people receive from you. Sometimes you just forget or lose sight of your gift in the daily grind. By reminding yourself what it is that you give people, you'll be able to use it more consciously and consistently.

But how often do we fail to recognize and acknowledge in ourselves this avenue to greatness? It's easy to take our unique strengths for granted – "well, that's no big deal, that's just who I am." The next time someone asks you what you do, you might try replying with a variation of your leadership theme instead of giving your job title right off. "You know how difficult it is to get a new product idea into the marketplace? Well, what I do is ..."

When you fully and humbly and proudly take possession of your unique leadership gift and use it more and more intentionally, you may find that it's the key to your career success. As a result of promotions, your gift will "naturally" find wider and wider avenues for expression.

Copyright © Joe DiSabatino

About the Author

Joe DiSabatino helps companies turn around morale problems by building high-trust work environments with an emphasis on integrity and core values. For more information go to

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