Leadership is earned trust, and it can be lost


I suppose I have been in leader in my organization for several years now.  It feels odd to write that down and read it. My first reaction to statements like that from others is usually rolling eyes and disengagement.  From time to time I struggle with the balance between confidence and humility in my professional life.  Confidence can come across as arrogance or closed mindedness, while humility can be interpreted as weakness.  The awareness of both and, for lack of a better analogy, the RPM’s of each, is a tight rope.

In my current role as Senior Vice President in my company, head of the Strategy division and head of the Los Angeles office I can’t deny that I have been put in a leadership position.

In fact, I cherish it. It’s a feather in my cap that the ownership of my organization is confident in the various capabilities I have to lead people and their business. That too was earned, over years, not months. And it too, can be lost or be diminished.

The leadership that is a glass egg, is the leadership my colleagues and peers attribute to me.  To some degree that leadership was assigned.  Assigned by the org chart, assigned by the title, assigned by the responsibility. But as we all know, leadership that is assigned can be short lived or hollow.

Leadership is a reservoir of trust. The water line moves up and down with each action, each project, each meeting, each conversation. One of the things I have learned (largely by failure) in my professional tenure is that an attention to tone, messaging, respect and motivation is a differentiation in leaders.

Of course there are moments when fist pounding and hard lines are appropriate.  When they become appropriate more often than not, it is time to step back and evaluate a larger picture.  Ongoing terseness, shortness or ultimatums are usually a sign that something is broken.  Often times it revolves around communication and expectations.  It is incumbent on leaders to be an exemplar of communication.  To articulate expectations, desired process and tempered critical thinking.  The business world is about as far away from black and white as you can move.  For  logical thinkers, context and situational nuance can be frustrating and confusing.  Treating subjective information as additional data points can be key in processing and decision making.  For emotional and passionate leaders, hard data can push them in a direction that is at odds with goals and objectives leading to discomfort and heightened excitability.

These internal levers and ways of thinking can be what drive a leaders behavior and the perceptions of those who follow.  I got a fortune cookie once that said ‘Management is doing things right, leadership is doing the right things.’  Yeah, I’m not thrilled either that something so clear and concise came to me in a fortune cookie. But if you forgive the fortune cookie wisdom and think through it, your emotional reaction to the idea should squarely put you in the category of being a manager or a leader.

In my mind the world needs both.  There isn’t a stigma for non-leadership, nor with non-management roles.  For me, I enjoy the challenge of becoming a leader.  Some of my day, maybe most of my day, is being a manager.  I am responsible for making sure things get done right.  That part of my job can be less rewarding than the moments when I can showcase leadership skills. However, they influence one another.  And both, when done right, build the reservoir of trust.

With the pace of the world, business & personal, it’s difficult to focus attention on the kind of leader you are becoming and perceptions being created. Often times making decisions can become what being a leader feels like. It’s so much more than that, both to your own growth, and for the people who follow.