Why You’re Struggling to Lead. And How to Improve.

Jake Wilder
Jun 29 · 12 min read

The Critical Components to Building the Trust Necessary for Leadership.

When Walter Mischel ran his famous marshmallow test in the 1970s, he wanted to show how our willpower develops with age. At a nursery school, he tested a series of 3, 4, and 5-year olds to see if they could refrain from eating a treat, such as a marshmallow. They were shown the treat, told that the adult was leaving for a while, and if they wanted to, they could eat the treat right away. But if they waited until the experimenter came back, they would be rewarded with two treats.

Some children ate the treat immediately. Others stuck it out until the experimenter returned and got two treats. And others managed to wait a little while, but then gave up and dove in.

Decades later, Mischel and his colleagues checked in on the participants, now adults with families and careers. Surprisingly, they found that those children who waited the full time grew into more successful adults. And since then, everyone with an internet connection has preached the importance of willpower and self-control as a critical aspect of life’s success.

But what if the study tells us something else entirely?

A team of researchers at the University of Rochester ran a similar experiment, but added a twist. Before bringing out the marshmallows, the researchers split the kids into two groups and set them to work on an art project. The experimenter gave them some mediocre art supplies and promised to come back with some better items. In one group, the experimenter delivered on her promise and came back with better art supplies. In the other, she didn’t, and returned with nothing but apologies.

Afterwards, the researchers recreated Mischel’s marshmallow test. Not surprisingly, the children who saw the experimenter as reliable were more likely to wait and earn two treats. And those who learned the experimenter was unreliable were more likely to eat the marshmallow before she came back.

How people respond to the marshmallow test — and the level of success that they go on to achieve in life — does involve a sense of discipline and self-restraint. But it’s also influenced by how willing people are to put their trust in others.

Willpower and self-control are important. But so is being able to trust in others and earn their trust in kind. And for a leader, there’s nothing more important than building and reinforcing this behavior.

Trust is Leadership.

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships,” wrote 7 Habits author Stephen Covey. And just as trust is critical for relationships and communication, it’s an absolute requirement for leadership. Leaders cannot lose the trust of their people and continue to influence them. It just doesn’t happen.

Consider those you see as leaders. Consider the criteria you run through in your head before putting them in this category.

The most important one rarely involves skills or experience. It likely doesn’t have much to do with position or title. And the amount of followers someone has usually doesn’t factor heavily into the equation.

The most important question concerns trust. Do we trust this person? Do we trust her to help us reach a better place in the future? Do we trust him to help us accomplish things that we can’t on our own?

Trust is always the foundation of leadership. As people lose trust in their company’s management, it’s easy to see how their leader’s ability to influence quickly goes with it. Politics is no different. How many people consider their elected officials to be true leaders? For the majority of the country, they don’t equate grandstanding false claims and furthering personal agendas to be trustworthy behaviors. So it’s not surprising to see how few people consider our “political leaders” to have earned their self-proclaimed title.

So if we expect to avoid this fate — and continue to be seen as the leaders we aspire to be — building and maintaining trust should always be our top priority. The good news is that it isn’t complicated — no more so than managing a bank account.

Keep a Positive Trust Bank Account

“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.” — J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

More than 250 years ago, the Reverend Thomas Bayes, an English Presbyterian minister, wrote one of the most influential papers in all of mathematics. Yet working on other things, he never published it in his lifetime. After his death in 1761, his friend Richard Price reviewed his papers and came upon an essay that discussed a method of estimating future likelihoods based on a limited amount of available data.

This spawned Bayesian thinking, which offers a model for updating our beliefs or predictions based on new information. It tells us to take our preexisting beliefs and combine them with observed evidence to create an updated view of the topic. Initial Beliefs + Recent Experience = New and Improved Belief. And as the posterior becomes the prior of every new iteration, it’s an evolving system, bringing us ever closer to more informed ideas and beliefs.

Straightforward enough, and for those who are willing to consider changing their minds from time to time, it’s nothing new. At one point you believed in the Tooth Fairy, eventually you were presented with enough evidence to question that belief, and eventually (hopefully?) you changed your mind on the topic.

Trust works in much the same way. Most people see trust as an on/off switch or as a black-and-white decision. As in, I trust you, but not that guy sitting next to you. But in reality, trust is more grayscale. It’s a gradient that evolves with every interaction and experience. As in, I may have trusted you 50% yesterday, but after you ate my yogurt from the fridge, it’s down to 45%.

Trust isn’t something that’s gained and held indefinitely, it’s something that needs to be built and reinforced with every action and decision.

In this way, trust operates similar to a bank account. Everyone, particularly people who start in new leadership positions, begin with a certain amount of trust in their account. Every good leadership decision adds more to it. Each poor decision causes you to pay out some of that account to your people.

As we see leaders make repeated bad decisions, they continue paying out of their account. Until one day, one final poor decision bankrupts them and it’s too late. Once your account is empty, you’ve lost the ability to lead that group of people.

Conversely, leaders who make good decisions that benefit their people and their organization will continue to put deposits into their trust account. Then even when they make a mistake, and everyone does, they’ll have plenty stored away to pay it out without bankrupting themselves.

So how does a leader keep their trust bank in the black? By consistently demonstrating three things: integrity, empathy, and ability.

Integrity: Live Your Values

“No man can climb out beyond the limitations of his own character.” — John Morley

Many managers will claim that they’re willing to hire someone of questionable character if it comes with a lot of talent. But they usually end up regretting this decision. Because regardless of someone’s talent, if you can’t trust their integrity, you can’t trust them.

Talent on its own is never enough to earn trust. Think of the people you trust, it’s likely those who’ve demonstrated strong character regardless of the adversity or situation.

When we ask people to trust us, we’re asking them for more than mere reliance. I rely on my phone’s alarm clock to wake me up in the morning, but I don’t trust it. I rely on one of my coworkers to tell overly embellished stories, but this is the very reason that I don’t trust him.

When we ask people to trust us, we’re asking them to accept a certain level of vulnerability and open themselves to the possibility of betrayal. As Suzanne Collins wrote, “For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been trust first.” It only makes sense that for people to accept this risk, they’ll need to feel secure in the knowledge that we won’t forsake it.

And one of the few ways to show people we’re worthy of this trust is through a foundation of integrity.

As leaders, we demonstrate integrity by living out our values every day — not just when things are going well, but when adversity is piling on and it becomes easy to take a shortcut. As Ulysses S. Grant once put it,

“The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.”

We demonstrate integrity by following through on our commitments and keeping our promises — a path that requires us to say no to things that fall outside of our core mission. Because the best way to keep the promises you make is to only make the promises you can keep.

And we demonstrate integrity by admitting our mistakes. The great thing about mistakes is that your people already know you made one. It’s usually obvious to everyone involved. They’re just waiting to see how you’re going to handle it- will you recognize it and fess up or refuse to take agency? One path turns a bad situation around and builds trust while the other draws down your trust account.

Integrity alone won’t build trust. But without integrity, trust can’t happen. As the Greek philosopher Democritus wisely said,

“Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.”

Empathy: Show People You Care

“Any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.” — Ed Catmull, Creativity, Inc.

No one trusts the stereotype used car salesman. That guy wearing a checkered blazer and calling himself Honest Bob may be spewing out a lot of things, but trust is definitely not one of them. Because we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is not looking out for our best interest.

One of the most common ways that leaders lose trust is that they lose empathy with their people. People begin to see them as in it for themselves or self-distracted. Which, given how busy we all are, is an easy trap to fall into. As the relentless demands on your time grow, sacrificing the time needed to connect with people and demonstrate empathy inevitably happens.

But this puts us in a vicious cycle, because suddenly everything becomes more difficult. As you lose empathy, trust erodes and it takes more time and effort to accomplish things with your team. Which leads to further frustration, more time commitments, and less time to re-establish this connection.

So one solution is to make empathy a part of your daily or weekly schedule. We sustain those behaviors that become ingrained in our process, and demonstrating empathy is no different.

Find ways to take an interest in people’s lives outside of work. Start each morning by grabbing a cup of coffee and holding informal discussions with your people. Focus some work discussions on career development and aspirations as opposed to operational status. And reinforce your interest by giving people support in their pursuit of those goals.

When Eric Schmidt ran staff meetings at Google, he began each one by asking people to provide an informal trip report of the activities they did over the weekend. What came across as impromptu conversations was actually his way of making sure his team members got to know each other as people, with families and passions outside of work.

Marissa Mayer developed a variation during her time at Yahoo. Rather than trip reports she started her staff meetings with thank-yous. In her words,

“My staff called it the family prayer. You have to thank another team member for something that happened last week. You can’t thank yourself, and you can’t repeat what someone else said. This ends up being a nice way to recap the entire week.”

Whatever the method — and having borrowed both of these for my own staff meetings I can attest to their effectiveness — the intent isn’t to force more small talk into an already busy day. It’s to demonstrate, as leaders, that while we care about the work, we also care about peoples’ lives. As the old leadership saying goes,

“No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Like many managers, I hold weekly one-on-one meetings with each of my people. The agenda is simple: 10 minutes discussion on a topic of their choice, 10 minutes on a topic of my choice, and 10 minutes talking about career development. But it’s easy to get caught up discussing a technical problem in the first 20 minutes, lose track of time, and end up sacrificing the career discussion — a move that, if repeated enough, forces me to pay out of my trust account.

So each week I reflect on where I’ve fallen short of reinforcing this connection, and adjust next week’s plans accordingly. What gets measured gets managed and this applies to empathy as well as production yield.

Above all, take the time to show people that you genuinely care and want to help them. Once you do this, they’ll usually respond in kind.

And primarily, be present. Put away your cell phone. Few things tell people you’re not interested in them like checking social media posts in the middle of a conversation.

Ability: Help People Reach Their Potential

“What is our aim? I can answer that in one word: Victory — victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.” — Winston Churchill, in his first speech after becoming Prime Minister

When we think of a leader’s ability, it’s easy to tie it to the technical ability of their people. An engineering manager’s ability may focus on technical depth while a sales manager’s ability could be their capacity to close a deal.

Yet many of us have seen the problems that result from promoting the best engineer into management. It’s not surprising that a superhuman ability to code doesn’t easily translate into leadership skills.

Our ability as leaders isn’t measured in technical skills, but in the capacity to make those around us better. And in our capability to bring positive results and victories for our teams.

Watching the Women’s World Cup, it’s easy to see how the U.S. Women’s team has strong leadership. In every match, it’s clear that the team has one, unified vision. No players are working from different agendas or putting themselves before the team. Everyone is consistently working towards the team’s success. Without a unified vision, teams don’t succeed, regardless of talent. It’s true in sports. And it’s true in business.

The U.S. Women’s coach, Jill Ellis, also understands that every team needs diverse talent to succeed. Each player brings different strengths and skills that complement the others. As talented as Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are, different skillsets are needed for different positions. It’s easy for a leader to overlook this aspect and build teams full of individuals just like them. I, regrettably, used to have this very blindspot. Following one interview, as I was criticizing the candidate with our management team, a peer said to me, “No manager in this company wants to have ten Jake Wilders in his section.” He was absolutely right. Every person has something to contribute. A leader’s ability is in figuring out how to best leverage that for the success of the group.

Third, it’s clear that the U.S. Women’s coach and team leaders drive every player to improve and reach their potential. They simply wouldn’t have the level of success they’ve achieved without it. The primary job of each leader is to help people be more effective in their job and develop in line with their goals. We do this by maintaining high standards and giving people the tools and support they need to succeed against those standards. A leader’s ability isn’t based on a proficiency of technical skills, but in the continuous effort to develop these skills in their people.

When we can help people see a unified vision, build teams with diverse skillsets, and drive people to reach their potential, trust will follow.

Start Building Trust Today

The responsibility is not on others to trust you. The responsibility is on you to earn their trust.

How trustworthy would your team, or your followers, consider you to be? Do they provide candid feedback to you, even negative things that you may not want to hear? Do they provide bad news as quickly as good news, without fear of reprisal?Do they share their concerns and improvement ideas with you?

Trust is difficult to measure. But if your people operate with candor and are willing to have open and honest discussions with you, it’s a good sign. If not, it just means that you have some more work to do. Or as Ed Catmull would say,

“If there is more truth in the hallways than in meetings, you have a problem.”

Trust isn’t a one-time gain. And it’s not reserved for major events. It’s built through the little things that we do every day to demonstrate our integrity, empathy, and ability.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Other ideas and thoughts on how to build trust? Don’t hesitate to share, I’d love to hear from you. Cheers!

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Jake Wilder

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Enemy of the Status Quo.

The Startup

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