In this week’s podcast episode with Evgeny Shadchnev, CEO of Maker’s Academy in London, there’s a lot of talk about building trust. Jerry notes that trust is a by-product of the value of being authentic. Their conversation got me thinking a lot about the importance of trust, and therefore the importance being authentic. I mulled around these questions: How do you commit to being an authentic leader– in success and failure, and while you scale? What’s at stake if you don’t?
Trust is a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something in which we place our confidence. Trust in our organizations undergirds success. Trust is what empowers teams to manifest a company’s vision. Without trust, our teams and companies are in jeopardy. Lack of trust will derail any attempts to improve company culture. And, if you’ve ever been in that situation, you know it feels awful. It’s stressful. No one is saying what needs to be said. There’s fear, anxiety, tension, and conflict. Meanwhile, the product is going nowhere.
In his classic leadership fable, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni notes how the absence of trust stems from an unwillingness in the team members to be vulnerable and genuinely open up with one another: “Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction is a failure on the part of team members to understand and open up to one another. And if that sounds touchy-feely, let me explain, because there is nothing soft about it. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team. In fact, it’s probably the most critical.” He adds, “Remember teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”
“Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity,” wrote Coco Chanel.
Growing up, I learned a lot about trust–and what it takes to establish it–from my horses. When a horse trusts you, he looks to you for leadership. That’s the quintessential quality of horsemanship (read: leadership), because without trust, a horse-rider relationship lacks connection and is instead fraught with anxiety, fear, and conflict. When that happens, neither critter feels safe and will react defensively in an act of self preservation. It’s hard times in the relationship department. Ultimately, you don’t get anywhere.
Horses are barometers for how authentic and real you are being in their presence. They have this incredible built-in bullshit meter and know when you’re posturing. If I was emotionally congruent when I was with them, they could trust me. In other words, if I was feeling sad on the inside and aware of that within myself, it showed in my exterior differently than if I was trying to hide it. As long as I was congruent, they were right there with me. No tension. No stress. Whereas, if I was feeling one thing internally and presenting another, the horses would be on edge, anxious, and show physiological signs of fear because they didn’t feel safe around me. I was perceived as a threat and they would rather be anywhere but next to me. Their reaction was honest feedback on my interior and exterior alignment. I learned quickly to become attuned to myself and how I was showing up, so I could also be attuned to my horse. Only then would any tension between us reside, so we could begin working together as partners.
Horses are prey animals, meaning they are susceptible to becoming dinner to predators such as mountain lions, wolves, coyotes, or bears. Their entire nervous system is wired to sense threats in the environment and, as such, are inherently sensitive animals. They can sense when a mountain lion is close and even more so when a big cat is “trying to look like a rock.” Their systems know the incongruity of “the furry rock with whiskers” because their life depends on that level of sensory acuity. As humans our brains may have taken new shape further down the evolutionary branches, yet we have this critter neurology within our wiring and can sense incongruity in others. Think about it for a moment: How do you know you can’t trust someone or something? Something feels off, right?
Imagine how your team feels if trust is missing from your culture, if they don’t feel safe to say what they need to say, or to name the elephant in the room. Interior and exterior alignment is critical in leadership. It creates the basic conditions to make people feel safe. When we feel safe, we can relax and do our best work because we’re not looking out for someone or something to put us on the defensive.
The reason we trust each other is because we’re being real with each other. “Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal,” writes Lencioni, adding that: “Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think.”
Being authentic builds your presence and effectiveness as a leader. By maintaining your emotional congruency, you show up more authentically. By allowing yourself to be yourself, you give others permission to be themselves. If embodying the values of authenticity are not part and parcel of your culture, somebody has to go first. Someone has to have the audacity to be themselves, to be honest, to be real. In a culture that feels toxic, that’s a courageous move.
Yet, it feels like the right thing to do, like something you know in your gut that you have to say. “That inner voice has both gentleness and clarity. So to get to authenticity, you really keep going down to the bone, to the honesty, and the inevitability of something,” says artist Meredith Monk. Once you find it, it’s as if something trues up in you and all of you aligns “head, mouth, heart, and feet.”
Sometimes, I sense a deep questioning about being authentic in our working lives, as if some voice inside of us utters disbelief against that voice within us that speaks with gentle clarity and urges us to say what we need to say. “I can’t really be real / be honest / be me, can I?” I see this question asked in the faces of clients and bootcampers. I often wonder about what stops us. Perhaps it’s a fear we all hold deep within us about not belonging: the fear of being unloved, abandoned, and hurt for being who we are.
And yet, it’s critical that we show up authentically in our work and life. Bill Plotkin writes in Soulcraft: “But the more advanced practice of choosing authenticity over social acceptance requires something more: you must tell yourself and your intimate others the truth, all of it, as deep as you can, especially when it’s difficult. What you express is from the heart and intended to serve both yourself and others. You must adopt the practice of making all your actions align with what you know to be emotionally and spiritually true.”
Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton wrote about generating trust through transparent communication in their book All In. The main theme? It starts with the leader: “Through example, leaders can create a contagion of openness that leads first to trust and then to tangible changes in the levels of engagement, enablement, and energy. Character-based trust moves an organization forward. It is created by a leader’s consistent behavior, adherence to principles, openness, honesty, and dependability.”
What’s at stake if we commit to being an authentic leader? As Parker Palmer tells us, “We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust, and hope, and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.”
Now that’s something I can ride along with.