There’s an axiom of leadership we rarely pause to appreciate: To be effective, leaders must have trust. “Obviously,” you may be thinking. But before you simply move on, ask yourself: What exactly do we mean when we make this statement? Is there more to it than meets the eye? Far more important, are those who lead you less effective than you want or need a leader to be? Are you the leader who’s coming up short? If you care about leading well, it’s time to take a closer look at trust.

Without Trust, There Is No Such Thing As Leadership.

The link between trust and leading starts simple enough: If the person we call the leader isn’t trusted, all is effectively lost. Without trust, those who would support the leader don’t. The reverse is just as true - when a leader loses trust they lose their ability to influence. Trust is the connective tissue linking everyone in an organization, group, or society to each other. It’s the key ingredient that enables the pathways by which ideas, energy, and effort flow. Without it any group is little more than just a bunch of humans hanging out hoping something good might happen.

Trust Must Include Trusting Others To Lead.

Just as trust isn’t one dimensional, neither is leadership. Yet we make a similar error when thinking about leadership. Call it the ‘error of one,’ in other words, equating leadership with a single person, as though others play no part. In truth, leadership is something that needs to constantly move, wisely shifting a group’s reliance to whomever can best lead as circumstances change. While leadership moving is what’s necessary for an organization to be an adaptive, vibrant, even innovative, most are built to prevent leadership from moving. Why? Because the individuals who run those organizations don’t want to lose control. At least that’s the surface answer. The real reason is they lack trust.

This lack of trust in many leading and co-creating is more the exception than the norm in our human history of striving together. Indeed the kind of trust that allows the many to lead has been a vital factor in our ongoing survival. While most human tribes throughout history had a chief, on any particular day the leadermight actually be the medicine woman, if the needs and circumstances of the day called for her skills most of all. Under different circumstances that leader could be a warrior, even a subgroup of individuals like the tribe’s gathers. And when leadership moved, any chief worth his or her salt didn’t quibble about passing the baton. They focused on the need or opportunity at hand and on getting behind the person best equipped to lead in that moment. If they hadn’t, there’s a good chance our modern-day tribes wouldn’t even be around. Trust was the critical factor. What made it work? Shared purpose.

At The Heart of Trust Is The Need To Attend To Shared Purpose.

The most important element fueling collective trust across any group is shared purpose, and the most successful teams of any era not only have one, but attend to it ongoing. Here’s how that last statement breaks down. You can’t assume a shared purpose. You have to consciously define it. And no doubt, shared purpose is at its most powerful when it is collectively defined. But even more important than defining it together from the start is collectively attending to it ongoing - revisiting it, reshaping it, testing it, reinterpreting it, applying it … over and over ad infinitum. When shared purpose is at the heart of the organization, leadership moves more effectively because trust in a common purpose is everyone’s reason for being, doing, and leading.

Trust And Leadership Thrive When Creativity Is A Cultural Mindset.

Trust is a force constantly in motion, in no small way because people and circumstances are always in motion. This has never been truer than in today’s uncertain often volatile environment. It almost goes without saying that openness and creative thinking are vital components in such conditions. But like trust and like leadership, too often we think of creativity as the domain and ability of the few. It’s not true, no matter what our myths and habits say. Creativity must be a cultural mindset. And for that to truly happen there must be trust. Yes, creativity can be messy, and messy sounds scary. But it turns out that when our shared capacity for creative thought is recognized, encouraged, and used in a manner of cocreation, cultures actually become moreresilient, thrive, and innovate - not in isolated moments, but perpetually.

The old maxim is true: leaders must have trust. The distinction today that makes the old new and powerful, is embracing that leading, creating, thriving, and trusting are shared endeavors. Trust me on this one.

Published on: Aug 29, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.