7 Signs You're A Leader People Can Trust
How can we know a leader is trustworthy? The simple answer is that we can't know for sure.
New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s shockingly sudden fall from power this week testifies to that. The New York Times earlier this week scoured Albany to see if Schneiderman’s colleagues had noticed any warning signs. The Times didn’t find much. His public persona was the opposite of his alleged private life, with colleagues describing him as "a teetotaler who favored coffee shops over bars, liked yoga and health food and preferred high-minded intellectual and legal debate to the hand-to-hand combat of New York’s political arena."
So yes, it’s hard to know for sure which leaders are authentic, and perhaps some people will become even more cynical after this latest leadership failure. But if you're a leader yourself, here are seven signs that you're able to inspire trust in those around you.
1. Other people below you on the org chart have nicer offices, homes or cars.
I once remarked to a top leader that I was struck by how plain his office was. He joked, “Hey, what’s wrong with my office?”
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m pleasantly surprised. So many leaders nowadays seem to work in mini-Taj Mahals. Yours is nothing like that.”
He said, “If there’s a better spot around here, with a nicer view, let the other people all enjoy that. I don’t need it to do my job.”
To many people, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman seemed utterly trustworthy--until suddenly he wasn't. (LAURA BONILLA CAL/AFP/Getty Images)
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Another leader, who specialized in being an interim leader who fixed up dysfunctional offices, told me he made it a point to take one of the humbler offices in any organization he joined. “This way,” he said, “employees with prima donna complexes know they won’t have a sympathetic ear if they complain to me about how they deserve more than the next person.”
Many leaders work extraordinarily hard to reach the top. So by the time they get there, they’re intent on fully living out the dream--furnishing every last millimeter of their corner suite with possessions worthy of the Sun King and negotiating with their boards for the most lavish perks possible. Leaders who do so aren’t necessarily un-trustworthy, but a leader who can show some restraint here is probably more trustworthy in placing key priorities above their own power or privilege. That’s crucial.
2. You can say, “That’s my fault” frequently and easily, without wincing or coughing. A leader may struggle to take personal responsibility for a messy situation; that shows that they can’t even recognize the mess for what it is, or that they’re more worried about their own job security than about doing the right thing.
3. You don’t demand reimbursement for every last latte while on company business. Those who overdo it here may not have the worst intentions. They may, for instance, be dogged about saving every last nickel for their child’s college fund. Still, they reveal both a lack of personal restraint and a willingness to place their organization’s good below their personal priorities.
4. You talk about ethics--but not too much. This may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found that many imperfect leaders try too hard to generate a saintly aura or to claim a uniquely moral status. This just compounds their embarrassment if and when they tumble. I prefer the candor and humility of a former colleague, who would sometimes muse after-hours, “All leaders of organizations like this one have to make compromises constantly. We’re all whores. There’s no Mother Teresa among us.”
5. You'll have your employees' backs when it counts. I passed up a career-redefining job years ago because I was skeptical that my would-be boss, a nice enough person, would have the courage to defend me in his cutthroat, high-stakes business. I don't expect constant courage: People who are brave 24/7 usually become stunt-persons or skydiving instructors. Most leaders, by contrast, are not brave 24/7, but the ones who are worth a damn are brave when they have to be.
6. People on the front lines get more than a glance from you as they pass by. Most executives flunk this test. The janitor is just the janitor and the gardener is just the gardener to these executives rushing by to meet "more important" people. But I remember the memorial service for one top university vice president, because it was filled with gardeners and janitors who knew this was a leader who cared about not only about people who could advance his career, but also for people who never could.
7. You showcase others in the organization more than you showcase yourself. Look at the company social media accounts and newsletters. Is the leader’s face in a most of the pictures? In the age of MeToo, MeFirst is not a good look and it’s not a good sign.
Here's a personal note: One of my former personal physicians, who was a noted medical leader, was guilty of placing his face in seemingly every picture that came out of his organization, and he also failed in at least three or four of the other "trust" areas listed above. Not long ago his reputation and livelihood tanked when illegal activities and abuse of colleagues came to light. While most of us saw only a polished veneer of a career until the very end, perhaps the dots were there to be connected.
Of course, no such checklist is perfect, and few leaders will score a perfect seven here. But if a leader checks out on five or six of them, I’d wager he or she has a good chance of leaving the organization in a state of grace, not disgrace.