When we step into a leadership role we’re asking others to accept our position in ways whose roots run very deep.
We all learn about both power and care when we are children looking to our parental figures to provide direction, security, warmth and unconditional patronage. In the crucible of our earliest years we learn about boundaries, role-models, reward and punishment. More though, we lay down the scripts of our own responses to authority – we ‘programme’ our relationship with power and how that power is wielded, hopefully with love and care, over us.
When we grow up and start working in organisations, these deep, installed-in-infancy, patterns are fundamental to the psychological relationship we have with leaders and leadership. In the same way, our early relationships with siblings play out in our later dealings with peers.
Unconsciously, we respond to our leaders as if they were parents. We crave their attention, are fearful of their displeasure, and hanker for their love. We follow their direction: sometimes willingly and sometimes whilst quelling (and occasionally not quelling) toddler-esque tantrums or teenage-like rebellion. Above all though, we want them to make us secure – we want to rely on their word, on their presence, to keep us safe. In the oft-changing unnerving world of childhood life, and in the oft-shifting unsettling world of adult organisations, we look to our seniors to be the trusted foundations on which we can anchor the roles we hold.
This is deep stuff you might say! You’d be right: there’s a reason we refer to the ages 0-7 as the the formative years.
I’m not suggesting that leaders should be experts in child psychology (although, come to think of it, that might not be a bad idea!). More seriously, I’m suggesting that if we look at leadership simply through a rational lens then we risk missing deeper, unconscious processes that might inform and develop our leadership practice.
The importance of trust
Leadership is too broad and situational to be reduced to a simple strap line: there’s no one right way to be the best leader. There is, however, a sure-fire way to be a poor one. Demonstrate yourself to be untrustworthy and you’ll undermine the goodwill you’re generating elsewhere. Break trust with people and you’ll turn a follower into a cautious colleague at best, and into an enemy at worst. Break trust more publically and your hope of inspiring a whole organisation is lost – you’ll shed followers and be left with only manipulative power bases to draw on: the discredited management tools of carrot-dangling and blunt stick.
Human beings are sensitive, unconscious perceivers of authenticity – we know when words and deeds match, and when they don’t. I’ve worked in, with and alongside many organisations where both the written (official) values of the organisation and the espoused values of the leader(s) are frequently contravened by their actual behaviour.
Sometimes we have to break promises – to take courageous actions in service of our organisation. More often it’s the small things – the inferred gestures and implied agreements – that people pay attention to. Either way, it’s more than our credibility on the line: it’s the trust people place in us. Trust is a core currency of leadership, and like all valuable currencies: invest in it, and spend it wisely.