Paradox of Trust

The Paradox of Trust, Vulnerability and Leadership

 Editor’s Note: This post is part of the series “Return on Trust,” a weeklong effort provided by some very special invited guests. Be sure to keep track of the series here and check out our daily e-mail newsletter. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

We usually think of great leaders as strong, unflappable, all-knowing, all-confident and ready to forge ahead.  They have all the answers, they know where they are going, and we trust them without doubt and question.

Wrong! Great leaders are strong but don’t hide all their emotions. They know a lot but not everything, they are confident but not arrogant and they are ready to forge ahead – with the help of their team’s insights and inputs.  They want to be challenged and they want hidden assumptions brought to light and questioned.

One of the gifts of the 21st Century is the realization that real leadership is a paradox of trust and vulnerability.  Last year, I was privileged to lead a discussion with John Hagel, Saul Kaplan and Mike Waite on this very topic.

Humans tend to model the behavior they see. When leaders appear to be in control, know everything, never doubt, or never ask for help or input, employees think they have to do the same.  The behavior they see and deem as acceptable is to be strong, not question, never be wrong, and always know.  The opposite behavior is a sign of weakness and is unacceptable.

Humans tend to model the behavior they see. When leaders appear to be in control, know everything, never doubt, or never ask for help or input, employees think they have to do the same.

Leadership is a fine line between the confidence and competence to earn and keep trust and the hubris and perfection that loses trust.

When leaders show their vulnerability, it gives those around them the freedom to do so as well.  Asking for input or help lets employees know you

  • Are willing to admit you don’t know everything
  • Want diverse and opposing opinions
  • Value other’s experience and expertise
  • Want to learn and discover

When employees feel they can offer insight and contribute, it makes them feel like they matter.  By helping, providing information, and discovering insights, we feel needed and valuable.  These traits forge better relationships, which build trust.

Leadership is a fine line between the confidence and competence to earn and keep trust

Many people feel this ‘soft-stuff’ like trust takes up a lot of time and energy that can be directed towards getting work done. But when we don’t trust, we use up a lot of energy to keep our guards up, check and verify.  What if we trusted and allocated all that ‘preserving the guard’ time and energy into getting things done and making an impact?

So, while it is paradoxical, to be a great leader, one must be willing to be vulnerable, to risk being wrong, and to let people in so that they can too.  The result? Trust, and a stronger, growing organization.

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Copyright: alexemanuel / 123RF Stock Photo

Deborah Mills-Scofield is a partner at Glengary LLC, an early stage venture capital firm in Cleveland, OH, and an innovation and strategy consultant. Her patent from AT&T Bell Labs was one of the highest-revenue generating patents ever for AT&T & Lucent.

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  • Jim Sanderson


    Your post is “spot on”. I had the opportunity to work with a young leader who exemplified the qualities you highlight in this post. Without exception, those who were members of his executive team and members throughout the organization, followed him because they wanted to and because of his ability to bring out the best in them. He is a facilitator of prosperity, he values the individual and each person’s capacity to make a meaningful contribution. In short, he trusts the potential of those he works with and their commitment to deliver excellent results. Thanks for a great post on this important characteristic of great leaders.

  • Bob Vanourek

    Great post, Deborah. Thank you.

  • Deb Mills-Scofield

    Thank you so very very much, Bob

  • Deb Mills-Scofield

    Thank you so very very much, Bob

  • Deb Mills-Scofield

    Jim, Thank you for taking the time to comment. You were very blessed to have worked with this young leader!!

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