Humility and the Trustworthiness of a Leader

Jim Collins has rightfully indicated that a key quality of exceptional leaders is humility. This view has become increasingly current, with the growing interest in the spiritual quotient of leadership and the growing body of work in the field of servant leadership.

As an independent theme, I have found many clients struggling with the issue of employee trust in the leadership of the enterprise, since this is often seen as a critical variable in enabling the success and, in some cases, the ongoing viability of the enterprise.

While the Care & Growth Model provides a framework to understand how and why trust in the leadership of an organisation develops over time, I think it is useful to explore the explicit relationship between the perceived trustworthiness of a leader and the leader’s humility.

The Issue Of Trust

In the course of some fieldwork I was conducting on a goldmine in the 1980s, I asked an employee why he did not trust management. His answer was straight forward:

“I can’t trust a man who does not trust me.”

At the time the comment struck me as being insightful in a folksy way, but it took some time for the profundity of what the man said to sink in. If I don’t trust someone, I clearly feel that they are dangerous to me. My attitude to them will therefore be combative, I will seek to control them or disable them in some way to protect myself. If I don’t trust them, I will therefore probably behave in ways that will make them not trust me. This suggests that the there is a direct relationship between the trustworthiness of the leader and the degree to which the leader trusts.

So, if the ability of the leader to trust is a key variable in cultivating his trustworthiness, then it is important to understand the necessary conditions that set up his predisposition to trust. It is important to recognise that trust has a very definite deportment with regards to time. Trust looks forward. You trust what someone may do, what could happen. You trust that the outcome is probably going to be benign. In this sense, trust is diametrically opposite to control. When you control, you are trying to ensure or guarantee an outcome. You therefore assume that the outcome cannot be entrusted to the other, because you have to control the other. Trust looks forward in time.

This ability to look forward in trust is based on a particular attitude to the past. If I look at the past and recognise that what has happened to me in the past has had more blessing than curse in it, and that things have worked out in ways beyond what I can account for on the basis of my own ingenuity, then it is easy for me to trust. In short, the degree to which my appraisal of the past is grounded in gratitude is simultaneously the degree to which I am able to trust the future. The degree to which I look backward in gratitude is the degree to which I am able to look forward in trust.

Humility is Key

Gratitude that is not based on an insight of in-self-sufficiency, is not really gratitude at all. If I am self-sufficient then the other’s assistance to me is of no account. I don’t really need it. If and if I express gratitude under these conditions, it is with very little sincerity. In fact, my expression of gratitude will at best be seen as cosmetic and at worst be seen as smug. It is precisely this smugness that so winds people up with untrustworthy leaders. This smugness is experienced as a deep arrogance. The opposite of this smugness is a genuine appreciation and gratitude that indicates a measure of vulnerability in the leader. This vulnerability is experienced as humility.

To conclude: The gratitude of the leader is manifest in a humble demeanour. It is precisely this gratitude which enables the leader to trust. The degree to which the leader trusts is the degree to which he is trustworthy. There is a direct connection between the humility and trustworthiness of the leader.

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