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How to stop the declining trust in leadership

This column is part of Globe Careers' new Leadership Lab series, where executives and leadership experts share their views and advice about the leadership and management issues of today. There will be a new column every weekday. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab

Leadership may be the second oldest profession in the world, but we still seem to have a dire shortage of good leaders when we need them most. One reason for this is the fact the value of leadership has become seriously diluted by a continuing decline in the level of trust we have in our organizations. This is true for both private and public organizations, and in their leaders whether elected or appointed.

This cannot continue, and those of us who believe leadership is both a sacred trust and a privilege must take steps to turn the tide of declining trust. To do so, we must not shy away from holding our leaders to the highest standards of competency, character and capability.

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Setting the stage for leadership

While each organization is different, the issues and challenges they encounter are stunningly similar:

– A lack of understanding of the organization's objectives.

– A lack of clarity around how and why certain decisions get made.

– Gaps in how information is shared from the top to the bottom of the organization.

– Gaps in accountability for performance at all levels of the organization.

Even though the tone may be set from the top, the real impetus for change comes from a powerful combination of customers on the outside and middle management from within. These two "constituencies" are the barometer by which we evaluate whether a senior leadership team has the currency of trust it needs to steward the organization through the choppy waters of change.

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Without the full and enthusiastic support of these two groups, leaders simply will not have permission to lead in the way they must to make the changes that ensure an organization's continued relevance.

An issue of credibility

It seems the essential building block for trust lies in the credibility of those who are asked to be leaders. It may be simplistic, but without credibility, senior leaders will not have the currency they need to finance the changes they need to make.

The power to lead is granted by the people in direct proportion to the permission they give the leaders, based on the credibility they have earned.

This definition of leadership turns the thinking of many people on its head, and yet it is exactly the type of change in perspective needed to rebuild the lost levels of trust which we are witnessing.

It begs the question of how do you build credibility? The answer is through:

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Transparency: The worst truth is still better than the best lie.

Diversity: Ensure a diversity of input in order to examine contradictory points of view.

Empathy: Listen without judgment and connect on a human level.

Decision making: Focus on the "how" and not just the "what."

Improve your decisions

We all like to think we are better than we really are. In business, however, it can be fatal. An organization's value rises or falls on the sum total of all the decisions (big and small) made by its people over time. Consequently, it would seem logical that senior leaders should pay more attention to the judgment behind the decisions they and their people make.

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But they don't. In fact, one of the most common symptoms of organizational underperformance lies in the realm of the decision-making process and the organization's inability to make brilliant decisions quickly, rather than mediocre decisions slowly. This is a disease with a known cure, and all it takes is a leader willing to do something about it.

To get better at making crucial judgments leaders must: Build a more diverse set of perspectives through which to frame decisions; focus on the assumptions that go into the premise behind their views; think through the consequences of their decisions, both intended and otherwise; and search for more than one "right" answer.

Remember, you are only as good as your last great decision.

The challenge lies not in the availability of answers, but rather in the deficits of candour, courage and ambition; the lack of willingness to ask the tough, insightful questions; the fear of doing the hard work necessary to make things better; the resistance to change, bred out of comfort with the status quo. Here are some ways to make changes:

Get outside

Leaders need to get to where real people and customers live. Fly-by visits are not the answer. The leader of the future has to be willing to dig in and find creative ways to really interact with the people who have the insights they need to drive the changes they want.

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Shake it up

Boredom is a habit that is acquired by those who expect others to do things for them. There is no shortage of work to be done, challenges to face, problems to solve and ideas to be explored. The great leaders we know of are restless by nature and dissatisfied by temperament. There is no time like the present for the senior leader to take on the role of the Chief Agitator, or the Chief Rabble Rouser or the Chief Chaos Creator.

Don't be afraid of the truth

Leaders can hide for a short time, but they cannot hide forever. The truth is liberating, if you have confidence in your ability to stare it in the face. Too many leaders allow themselves to live with the knowledge there is a gap between what they hear and what they feel. The great leaders are never afraid of knowing where they stand, because they know that moving forward is inevitable, no matter how inconvenient.

Make a difference

The value of leaders comes not from what they manage, but how they lead. Every leader needs to be guided and fuelled by a deep inner passion about something. Vanilla leadership is not what today's more challenging environment demands, so get out there and find something meaningful to do.

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Doug Williamson (@bluntleader) is president and CEO of The Beacon Group and author of the book Straight Talk on Leadership. E-mail doug@thebeacongroup.ca or visit his website www.dougwilliamson.ca.

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