It's not fair to expect others to trust you if you can't trust yourself. But how do you know if you're trustworthy? It's more complicated than it might seem.
You can’t expect others to trust you if you can’t trust yourself.
Your first reaction to that statement may be, “Of course I can trust myself.” But it’s a bit more complicated than that. We can take a cue from a saying that connects philosophy, track and field, and leadership: “The run determines the jump.”
Think about the long jump. Poor speed and technique in the run inevitably lead to a poor jump. Proper speed and technique, well-coordinated with the jump, bring the best results.
In leadership, the analogy is similar, if a little less concrete: The invisible—the work you do developing yourself--determines the visible—your leadership characteristics. And the key to both is self-trust.
Self-trust is the ability to have an honest, trusting relationship with yourself. Sound basic? Well, just as in your relationships with others, the extent to which you trust yourself depends on how you view the honesty, quality, and consistency of your actions.
With others, it is not possible to understand, or even to be aware of, all the motivations and intentions that lead to a decision. Within ourselves, of course, we know both sides of a story. We are privy not only to what we do, but to the reasons that we give ourselves for doing it. That makes it fairly easy to see when we are lying to ourselves, or acting without integrity, or over-rationalizing a decision we know we should not make.
Like all relationships, self-trust exists over time and is subject to ups and downs. A key to developing self-trust is to recognize it as a process that grows and changes. The more you engage in honest self-development on all levels, over time, the more you will trust yourself.
From a leadership perspective, the issue of self-trust is entwined with the fact that leaders have authority over others. Some leaders deal with this pressure by prioritizing a desire to be right or to be liked. While being right (or “competent”) or popular are not bad things, the pursuit of these two goals may be at odds with the wiser course of action.
You can often see this in the aftermath of a poor hiring decision. I’ve worked with several leaders who eventually recognized that they’d hired the wrong person for an executive position. Rather than reexamine the decision, they tried to ignore the bad fit.
Often, this desire to bury a mistake comes from not wanting to look incompetent or less like a leader. However, the leader who admits a serious mistake only to himself, and not the organization, very subtly erodes his sense of self-trust. Trust is often determined when the path of greatest convenience could be taken, but should not be.
It is during challenging times that we learn the most about how to trust others, and that we learn the most about trusting ourselves. Leaders must ask themselves how to stay honest and consistent. Over time, this practice of addressing the difficult decisions, rather than taking the most convenient or most popular route, builds a strong sense of self-trust.
Discussions about the visible, external signs of leadership are only useful if the invisible, internal signs are addressed first – and addressed best. From the Greeks to Peter Drucker, the exhortation of “know thyself” encourages leaders to spend time and energy learning about themselves. That means recognizing your values, principles, likes and dislikes, the things that frustrate you and calm you, actions that fill you with pride, and circumstances that tempt you to be less than your ideal self.
Only after you attend to yourself can you delve into the messy elements of genuinely leading people. This inner work provides a deep resource and quiet credibility when asking difficult questions of others; when challenging others to move beyond their own limitations; when encouraging others to take risks; and when inviting others to be open and honest because you have done so first.
Leadership self-trust means not having the answers and being right. It means aligning the run and the jump inside you, and constantly striving for the most appropriate way forward based on what you believe is right. This is the visible, active state of Shakespeare’s insight: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
There are no shortcuts.
Brian Evje is a management consultant with the organizational-effectiveness practice Slalom Consulting and an advisory board member of Astia, a global not-for-profit dedicated to increasing women's participation in high-growth businesses.