What do leaders need to do to regain trust

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Leadership has long held a particular allure for mankind. From the leverage it affords the wielder to make change as they see fit, to the myriad of useful externalities it brings, leadership, and the power innate within it, has not had anything but a checkered past. While memorable leaders such as Mandela and William Wilberforce have cast benevolent legacies to be recited at primary school history presentations for years to come, history carries the heavy weight of leaders who used their platform to harm, deceive and destroy. Pol Pot, Jeffrey Skilling, Elizabeth Holmes and Berlusconi, to name only a few for brevity’s sake, all held places of leadership and power in politics, business and the community. Their legacies land on the spectrum of inexplicable deception, greed and horror that has been felt and weathered by the average Joe and Jane for time immemorial. In light of the situation and bitter taste left by countless leaders, how can leaders regain trust?

Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of The Ethics Centre dives into this issue by saying that for too long people have seen leaders looking one way and going the other. The root of the challenge to maintaining trust in leadership lies within this duplicity. Longstaff asks, if you were parched in the desert and a person came out of the shimmering waves of heat and offered you a blue pill to take all your problems away, saying, ‘trust me, I’m an investment banker’ what would your response be? Aside from being laughed out of the room, the response would not be an emphatic one. He pushes further, what if the person said, “trust me, I’m a politician?” Our reactions to this scenario, while humorous displays a chilling reality, we do not trust our leaders and if we are leaders, we are not trusted. Longstaff asks, who is it today, who could say to you, ‘trust me’ and you would be inclined to believe them? Who is that would inspire trust in a natural and compelling way today? The longer one pauses in thinking this through, the sadder the conclusion to be drawn about the potential for leaders to effect positive change.

Technological change is ushering in a period of ‘civilisational change’ – a time of profound opportunity and uncertainty. Ideally, we would have leaders who would inspire confidence to step into this uncertain future driven by an increasing rate of innovation and change. Longstaff believes in our current age we need a leadership that can secure the benefits of the rapid change but also navigate its challenges to mitigate the potential for loss.

Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of The Ethics Centre

Longstaff posits that in order to bring about trust, leadership will need to be imbued with three generic and deep components. Firstly, integrity, to profess only what you believe and to conduct oneself without pretence. Yet it is the following two components to which he attributes particular weight. First, the stability and quality of the motivations we bring to bear to the activities that we undertake (and ask others to undertake with us) and secondly, the language we offer to people who come with us on the journey.

When the daughter of a former Managing Director of BHP was congratulated for his success in creating shareholder value, she was nonplussed. Instead, she responded that her father had been motivated by his desire to help build a great Australia – and that it was this that kept him going through the thick and thin. Longstaff believes that it is admirable to build sustainable corporations, corporate purposes need to be grounded in a deeper set of motivations. The pursuit of money and power (alone) cannot sustain momentum at times of deep challenge and upheaval. Deep reasons for pursuing goals and outcomes are guiding tools in the long run, a compass to navigate in times of uncertainty. Purpose is vital for leaders and institutions in staying their initial and true course. Longstaff believes over time there has been a time of forgetting, a loss of understanding the purpose of our institutions such as parliament, government, banks and media.

Longstaff invites leaders to strike up the questions that need asking. What is the purpose of all our institutions? While the answers may end up being those of our ancestors, for the first time they will be our answer, they will have life and resonance.

Longstaff additionally believes that leaders need to recover the language of ethics – at least as a complement to the dominant language of economics. Reasons of pursuing change and fighting wrongs should not stem out of mere necessity. Longstaff challenges the idea that the justification for our choices should be linked exclusively to issues of economic utility. He speaks of two charities that conducted economics reports to validate their attempts to deal with child abuse. Longstaff asks what kind of society needs economic reports to justify dealing with child abuse? The language of ethics needs to be engaged and utilised in earnest within our time. The intrinsic dignity of persons and the language of ethics needs to be recovered. Longstaff argues that this language can be the compass of where to go in the coming uncertain times, leaders must speak truth and into truth.

It is a mistake to see truth and communicating as injecting ideas into the mind of people. Longstaff defines the needed language and the essence of truth to be one of speaking to the underlying presence of that very truth already in the minds of the people. At its core, leadership should be an ethical practice. The doing of good. The stance towards the world should be one of constructive subversion. To subvert status-quo custom and practice, ‘that’s how it’s always been done around here’ and ‘I didn’t see it as wrong because everyone was doing it’. Longstaff encourages that to bring about change, in authentic leadership, is to speak truth into the situation, to help society be what it really wanted to be all along. The time for this leadership has never been more necessary and never more scary. To do this will take tremendous moral courage.

Catherine Walter, Company Director, speaks into this discourse in providing a personal story of leadership, struggle and support. When faced with the situation where uncertainty and isolation is at play and key decisions needed to be made, she felt that the respect accorded her from a range of external sources was influential in her staying the course. This makes us aware of the opportunity to support others encountering challenging decisions. 

Kara Frederick, the founder and managing director at Tiger Financial Group highlights that while she was working in Wall Street it quickly became apparent that there was a difference between people that had titles and people that she trusted. Frederick believed that the hope of instilling change in finance leadership was to lead by example, to provide a pointer to how matters could be dealt with differently. She asserted that moral courage certainly plays a huge part in this journey and yet it should not be the only component. Systems should be in place that encourage ethical behaviour and consequences for bad. Yet in order to validate these systems, the enforcement of consequences needed to occur. While systems can be put into place and change slowly occurs, many will continue to have to make lonely and difficult decisions.

Nik Gowing Visiting Professor at King’s College, London and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, opened the Retreat with a challenge for all leaders. He highlighted new data and analysis which reveals how the majority of top corporate and public service leaders are struggling to come to terms with, and handle, the new scale of global disruption. The theme ran as the spine throughout the 42 hours of the Retreat.

Leaders confront a new era of acute destabilisation for which their progression to the top has not equipped them. There is a steady obliteration of norms and the international rule of law which so far have been assumed to be secure to be taken for granted. This is no longer guaranteed. Indeed, an increasing number of norms are being turned on their head.

How are leaders adapting their style of leadership in order to think these new unthinkables? As hundreds have revealed in 1-1 interviews and conversations to the four years of work led by Gowing for the ongoing Thinking the Unthinkable project, the conformity which qualified them for the top now disqualifies most of them from gripping then handling the new normal. Too many remain invested in the conventional processes for attaining power and leadership that got them to the top. The new challenge is how they can be incentivised to change the culture, mindset and behaviour both of themselves and those they lead.

Gowing argued that the threats are already being seen to be existential for both corporates and governments. Voters and customers – especially from an increasingly disillusioned Next Generation – are readily losing confidence in traditional political and corporate values. Loyalty and respect can no longer be taken for granted. As a result corporates and political institutions – even those assumed to command historically high respect and confidence – are under not just challenge but threat. They must redefine their purpose and values in order to rebuild confidence and ultimately survive. The new reality of unthinkables facing leaders is that brutal. In private most accept that. The Australian Leadership Retreat acted as a valuable pressure valve for revealing and gauging the scale of anxiety, and above all the options for overcoming it.

The achievement of ALR was to air new ways to overcome pessimism in ways that ensure leaders can thrive on both disruption and the new ‘zig-zag’ scale of change. 

Susan Moylan-Coombs, founding director of The Gaimaragal Group

Susan Moylan-Coombs, founding director of The Gaimaragal Group highlights that currently in Australia there are so many different truths, there is a need to come to understand the common truths of our nation. Until that time there will be voices and opinions pulling from varying quarters and common goals difficult to maintain. In order to arrive at a good process and essence of leadership, people need to understand that we are all connected. In addressing the lack of trust in leadership, Moylan-Coombs raises the need for a high level to a ground level understanding. She posits that being in someone else’s boots, to know every member of your team, their hearts and heads is to operate on a deeper level that inspires better teams, efficiencies and outcomes. 

Anton Roux, CEO ADC Forum, argues that the context of leadership is vital. Leadership with a connected awareness of institutions in active parallel is to value more information sharing about future directions, discussions and outcomes. Underpinning leadership with context and systems awareness and individual responsibility, is to see leadership reach a new place. Leadership he asserts needs to be in one breath, firmness and structure but also dynamism in conversation, to have public spaces for conversation and public awareness of change. One caveat of change to pursue is the ability to have more public conversations.

Leadership has had a checkered past but has the potential to have a dynamic future. To be in the conversation, to be active in doing, listening and collaborating, is to begin this journey.