4 steps to be a more trusted leader today
Every leader has to establish credibility. It can take years to develop, but can be lost in a moment.
Leave out one ingredient and the whole recipe falls apart. Some things are just essential. When it comes to leading others, the task is impossible without trust. That’s because trust is at the heart of leadership. If you’re called to lead, you’re called to steward the trust others place in you.
Students want to be able to trust their teachers. Spouses want to be able to trust one another. Church members want to be able to trust their pastors. And employees want to be able to trust their managers.
When trust is absent, followers vanish.
As a leader, I certainly hope those I work with trust my competence. I want them to trust that I’ll exercise sound judgment, that I’ll be shrewd and innovative, that I’ll anticipate challenges and opportunities and position our organization for success. And I certainly want that from my wife and children. And I suspect you do, too.
But our leadership capacity will be disproportionately limited by a breach of trust in our character. If those we lead doubt our character, it really doesn’t matter what they think of our competence.
So how do we cultivate and strengthen trust? Here are four practical ways.
1. Tell the truth
Always. You’d think this goes without saying when we talk about distinctly Christian leadership, right? But if we know ourselves, we know how easy it can be to gradually slip into falsehood and all kinds of “shading” of the truth.
Sure, maybe we won’t stare someone in the eye and lie directly (a scary place to be spiritually). But what about telling half the truth or accenting certain things so as to mislead?What if those we work with say, “Well, take what he says with a five-ton grain of salt, because you know how he always spins reality”?
Those you lead—whether at home, work, or church—must be able to bank on you as a truth-teller, with no caveats. Throughout Scripture, God is presented as completely trustworthy. He can be always trusted because he is always truthful. Can others say that about you?
2. Say ‘I’m sorry’
If you’re going to lead, get used to those two words. You’ll say them often. And that’s because you’ll disappoint people and let them down. It may be a failure of judgment on your part: you thought “plan A” was the right course, but you were wrong. And now the consequences of your decision hit and people are disappointed or upset. Or you might have to say it because you know the right course of action, and it entails some really hard decisions that will cause difficulty or trauma in someone’s life.
It’s not just those big moments in leadership where you have to fire someone or eliminate a staff position. It’s apologizing when you’ve sinned against a colleague, a family member, or fellow church member. It’s giving up the urge to excuse yourself or justify your actions. It’s not capitulating to the urge to lash out at your critics when they’re right.
I’m convinced that, for some leaders, “I’m sorry” is the most difficult sentence to speak. You’ll just never hear them say it. If that’s you, be alarmed. Learn to say these words quickly and humbly, and you’ll serve your soul in the long term as you lead.
3. Own your failures and share your successes
Have you ever been around someone, or worked with someone, who takes credit for every success in the organization and never shares in the blame when things go wrong? Why are sales up? The leader, of course. Why are sales down? Not the leader, obviously. It must be those folks in the marketing department. I wish I could tell you this kind of leader is only found in secular workplaces. But that’s not the case. Such worldly narcissism can easily infect a Christian leader and organization.
Leading well means we don’t deflect blame. In fact, if you’re in a senior leadership position, you’ll often have to assume responsibility for things that may not have directly resulted from your decision-making, but they happened on your watch. When a leader does that, trust goes through the roof. Loyalty is deepened. However, when a leader refuses to take responsibility and always points the finger at a subordinate, watch to see how quick people start sending out their résumés for other jobs.
This same principle is true in our homes and churches. As we lead, we take the hits for others, including our own family members.
4. Learn the difference between responsibility and possessiveness
This a subtle yet dangerous difference. But if we get it wrong, it’ll significantly undermine the ability of others to trust us.
Leading will mean you assume ultimate responsibility for certain goals, strategies, people, and so on. That will often mean being the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. It’ll often mean, not micromanaging, but developing a broad awareness of the components of the system or network you’re responsible for. Leaders don’t have the luxury of saying, “I don’t care” when it comes to their responsibilities, since this is a matter of stewardship. But beware of confusing a wise sense of responsibility with a sense of possessiveness. For example, we may be tempted to speak in first-person-singular categories when we should speak in plural.
The people you work with—especially those under your leadership—aren’t “your people, your team” and so on. A Christian outlook recognizes them as God’s image-bearers (whether they’re believers or not), and that our ultimate aim is to leverage our authority and influence so they’ll flourish and find joy in submitting to God’s rule.
Learning this difference will also make you far less defensive or thin-skinned. When criticized, a possessive leader lashes back with defensiveness. When a different course of action is proposed, the possessive leader takes it personally. When a team member leaves for another opportunity, the possessive leader takes it as a betrayal of loyalty. And few things kill trust in a leader like self-centered possessiveness.
Trust as currency
Trust truly is the currency of effective leadership. Without it, you can’t lead others.
Trust can be conferred on new leaders within an organization, but only for a time. Eventually, every leader has to establish credibility. It can take years to develop, but can be lost in a moment.
As a leader, you will make mistakes. You’ll always be aware of your limitations and deficiencies. And you may occasionally lose the trust of those you lead. But the good news is that our Savior works through imperfect leaders—he has no other kind. Even when we fail, he does not. And that’s good news for all.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.