Authentic muppets & The Trust Equation

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about the importance of authenticity in leadership – extolling the virtues of bringing your true self into your work – of being the “real deal”. With a twinkle in his eye he said “yeah – but what if that person is authentically a muppet – would you be encouraging them to bring more of that into their leadership?” Fair challenge 🙂  From my perspective working towards leadership authenticity assumes that when you have a strong sense of yourself, your values and purpose, your strengths, limitations and talents and bring the best of your “real” self to work – that you will be more powerful as a leader than if you try to model approved “out of the textbook” leadership  behaviours.

So what is “authentic leadership”? According to Bill George, Harvard professor and author of Authentic Leadership and Discover your True North, to be an authentic leader the individual must be genuine; a true reflection of their core beliefs and values and not merely a replica of someone else’s leadership persona. This requires the leader to be self-aware, recognise their strengths and weaknesses, establish their own identity, be empathetic and take responsibility for the effect they and their actions have on others… on a full-time basis. It also requires that they learn from experience and adapt over time.

While different theorists have different slants on the concept, most agree that authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine, they understand their purpose and do the job in pursuit of results, not for their own power, money or ego. Authentic leaders lead with their heart, not just their minds and they cultivate connected relationships.

So I stand by the importance of authenticity in leadership. So much of what differentiates great leaders, whether it be of local charities, sports clubs or multinational business, is their ability to engage people, to build relationships, to motivate and inspire with a compelling purpose – and it’s my belief that people can sniff out when people aren’t being authentic. It may be subtle – just an uneasy sense that someone isn’t exactly what they seem – something that may stop you completely buying in to what they are saying or wholeheartedly responding to the request that comes your way. Or it may be actual experiences you’ve had with someone – maybe they say one thing and do another, they are inconsistent in their decisions or are difficult to engage with.

Much of this comes down to trust. Trust underpins so many relationships and has a massive impact on team effectiveness and motivation – with levels of trust often being what differentiates highly successful organisations from less successful ones. So what is it that makes us trust some people and not others? Most of us rely on our instincts when it comes to who we trust – and don’t give much thought as to why.

Trust plays such an important role in working relationships that there are huge bodies of research on it. One idea which really resonates for me comes in the form of the Trust Equation. When we think about why we trust some people more than others, it becomes clear trust is a feeling which is made up of a number of things. The Trust Equation introduced by David Maister, Charles M. Green and Rob Galford in their book The Trusted Advisor defines trust as being composed of four attributes: credibility, reliability, intimacy and self-interest.

  • Credibility – your expertise and how you appear to others
  • Reliability – your dependability and your consistency
  • Intimacy – your ability to connect with the other person
  • Self-interest – how much you put yourself and your needs first

The Trust Equation shows that trust increases when credibility, reliability and intimacy increase. In other words, we’re more likely to trust someone when we think they’re good at what they do, they do what they say they will, or we have a strong relationship with them. But all this trust can be undermined by self-interest. As soon as we think someone is putting their own interest above that of others, trust quickly breaks down.

Once introduced to this concept it made so much sense to me. An old colleague once told me that because I consistently demonstrated that I held the overall needs of the team over my own and was upfront about my own agenda that he really trusted my intentions; at the time I was chuffed to receive the feedback – and now I realise that he was talking about the self- interest element of the equation. My curiosity peaked, I started looking at other relationships – and I realised that I didn’t really trust person X because while they were experts in their field (credible) they were sometimes unreliable or inconsistent. Most interesting to me is the intimacy element – the part of the equation which is about connecting with someone on a personal level; whilst this may not be considered rocket science – most people would agree that you have to know a bit about someone and what makes them tick to them to trust them – in organisations it’s often overlooked. For many in senior roles the idea of this is a bit of a stretch – being open to sharing thoughts and feelings? Nope – I’ll keep that for my life outside work thanks! To share a little of who you are and what matters to you personally requires some vulnerability, which for some can be quite uncomfortable and for others is to be avoided at all costs.

So what is the cost? Without seeing a bit of the “real” you people are likely to trust you less – which means they may be less willing to follow you – especially in times of change or uncertainty.

So there is a link between authenticity and trust – and both require a dollop of courage.

I recently attended a workshop run by the fabulous Dr Magdalena Bak–Maier. A neuroscientist with a passion for Heart and Mind integration work, Magdalena does something bold and courageous in her work – she leads with love. When I first came across Magdalena I could feel my inner “woo-woo” radar going off – talking about love in a leadership context – really? The “professional” voice inside my head said – “Who is going to take that – and her – seriously?” But what I witnessed as the workshop unfolded was courageous, authentic leadership – sincere, real and powerful – and all backed up with scientific thinking and a clear sense of purpose. Professionals, from politicians to business and religious leaders, choose to work with Magdalena because she dares to bring her own unique vision and style of leadership.

So here’s my point. When it comes to leading – it’s time to bring more of who we are to work, to reveal what matters to us and makes us tick and in doing so deepen the connections that make such a difference to being a trusted and inspiring leader that others want to follow.

Are you ready to be bold and step into leading in your own way?

Of course people like my friend may roll their eyes at all this talk of authentic leadership – to him and them I say – What is the cost of not being you? In the words of Bill George – “when you look back on your life it may not be perfect, but it will be authentically yours”.

Wishing you all the best


Boldly-Go Leadership & Team Coaching

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