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Our Leaders Need to Start Acting Like Leaders!

The ability to inspire trust is an essential leadership trait.

According to a recent survey conducted by the marketing research firm, Maritz Research, our current crop of leaders has a lot of work to do in this area. Conducted in March of this year, the survey reported that:

  • 25 percent of U.S. employees have less trust in management this year than they did last year.
  • Fourteen percent believe their company’s leaders are ethical and honest. Yet only 10 percent trust management to make the right decision in times of uncertainty.
  • Only 12 percent of employees believe their employers genuinely listen to and care about them.
  • Only 7 percent believe that senior management’s actions are completely consistent with their words.

What a sad and disturbing picture of the people who are supposed to serve as role models for the rest of us! But if you look at the behavior of our public leaders, it comes as no surprise.

Everywhere we turn, our leaders continually make headlines for all the wrong reasons. From congressmen texting pictures of their private parts to the insane partisan politics that pervades our government at all levels, it seems our leaders have engaged in a contest to see who can outdo the other in terms of untrustworthy behavior.

Take the current debt-ceiling crisis.

Here we stand on the brink of a financial meltdown that could make the recent recession look like a walk in the park. Yet, rather than sitting down together and hammering out a workable solution, leaders from both parties continue to engage in ideological demagoguery. Instead of putting the nation’s interests ahead of their own, they’re acting like five-year olds fighting over the toys in a sandbox.

Is it any wonder that trust in our leaders has sunk so low?

And it’s not just our political leaders. The head of General Motors proudly proclaimed that GM has repaid their government loans. Upon further examination, however, it turns out they repaid those loans with a government grant. Technically speaking, his statement is true. But it’s still a deliberate and cheesy distortion of the truth.

And don’t get me started on the Chevy Volt. I’m all in favor of alternative fuel sources when they make sense economically. But here we have an inferior car with very limited driving distance between recharges. Our cash-strapped government not only plans to buy large numbers of these very expensive vehicles, it will also extend tax credits of up to $7,500 for all who purchase the “electric” car. (That’s what GM is calling it, but it’s clearly a hybrid.) And fully charging the battery requires 10 to 12 hours of household electrical current… in most cases generated by coal or gas power. So much for going green.

As long as our leaders continue to pull these types of shenanigans, trust levels will continue to erode. Unfortunately, our leaders seem to have lost sight of the fact that trust doesn’t get created through clever sound bites. It gets built slowly, one behavior at a time, by acting with integrity and alignment with the values that leaders espouse.

What can leaders do to restore our trust in them?

Develop a clear and compelling mission and vision. Tell people, “This is why we exist. This is why (and how) we do what we do. And this is the difference it makes in the world.”

Walk the talk. Define the organizational values and then follow through. Don’t just talk about the values. Live them! Even (and especially) when it’s hard to do.

Treat people with respect. Respect doesn’t mean just being polite. It means honesty and integrity in word and in deed. It means following through on your commitments and doing what you say you’re going to do.

Provide ongoing, honest feedback. Let employees know what you expect from them and tell them how they’re doing on a regular basis. Don’t sugarcoat your feedback just because it’s negative. Telling the truth goes a long way toward building trust.

Develop a culture of accountability. Reward high performance and hold people accountable for improving poor performance.

Easy to say, not so easy to do.

When senior executives get paid six-figure bonuses while their companies receive billions in government bailout money, it destroys any semblance of trust or credibility. When university presidents receive hefty pay raises in the face of billion-dollar budget cuts and 10 percent tuition hikes, one can only wonder, “What are they thinking?!”

Leadership involves considering the greater good and personal interests. Sadly, many of today’s leaders seem unwilling or unable to do so. Perhaps there is hope that with enough constructive criticism and insistence on accountability between word and deed, they will start acting like leaders once again. My fingers and toes are all crossed!

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