01 December 2021

Can You Be Trusted?

 "No virtue is more universally accepted as a test of good character than trustworthiness."

--Harry Emerson Fosdick

The year 2021 is a milestone having now spent 50 years in business.  Nine years working for closely-held companies; 41 years in private consulting practice with corporations and nonprofits.  There was a concurrent 21-year collaboration with The Gallup Organization as well.

Adding summer employment during college years expands the mix to include practical experience gained at General Motors in Flint, Michigan.  My principal assignment at GM in the 1960s, thanks to Howard Johnson and Richard Wirsing, was that of an office clerk.  

I served plant superintendents when full-time clerks went on vacation.  Typing letters. Screening phone calls. Scheduling meetings with union representatives. Make sure company-provided white dress shirts got sent to the laundry each week. And most importantly, keeping a superintendent's confidence.

Our time at GM was priceless.


According to the website, thebalance.com, there were six U.S. recessions since the early 1970s:  1973-75; 1980-82; 1990-91; 2001; 2008-09 (Great Recession); and 2020 (the worst since the Great Depression).

Covid-19 and a global pandemic (March 2020 to the present) caused the U.S. economy to contract a record 31.4% in the second quarter of 2020 with a loss of nearly 21 million jobs in April of last year.  A strong recovery is underway but it's uneven among businesses, households, and communities.

It's always a shock to the system (ego) when, in a crisis, variables we think we control and manage are found to control and manage us.  Think about how much we don't know. 

Last year's initial exposure to a global pandemic, subsequent lockdowns, with cries for help (from businesses and nonprofits) should have humbled everyone. But humility is rare and fleeting.     


A lot happens in five decades. Thus our observations and formal studies of leaders and leadership (they're not the same things), allow us to draw some conclusions.  

What have we learned?

... Like vehicles from the auto industry, effective leaders (executives, managers, supervisors) come in all makes and models. Consistent performers offer an assortment of styles complemented by healthy dispositions. 

Dynamic personalities make good copy but introverts make great leaders. "They are calm, good listeners, don't like to micromanage, and tend to resist self-defeating impulses," according to a Great Place to Work analysis.

... Not far from any successful leader is an executive or administrative assistant who helped that person function well under tight deadlines. Assistants make an executive's promptness and preparedness possible by serving with a diverse set of skills.  The ones we met knew how to hold trust.  

... Employees gravitate not to politicians but to leaders who know who they are, and what they believe.  Who let everyone know what they will and will not do. Those values and clarity give voice to moral authority and create boundaries for acceptable behavior. 

... A chief executive role is hard.  From 2003 to 2013 about a quarter of CEO departures from Fortune 500 companies were involuntary, according to the Conference Board.   

... What contributes to any leaders' problems? Poor hiring decisions; postponing decisions; avoiding conflict; lack of truthfulness; and the economy. 

Mercurial temperaments are not necessarily controlling but they tend to make people unreliable.

... Someone to watch carefully is Satya Nadella, Microsoft's CEO since 2014.  His company priorities of creating clarity, energy, and success regardless of the circumstances, are secondary to family commitments.  Known for empathy and a relational style, the India-born Nadella is leading Microsoft to a new level of success. Close to 90% of Microsoft's value has been generated under Satya Nadella's leadership. 

Satya Nadella, Microsoft Chairman and CEO
(C) Microsoft

... "Where are all the women CEOs," was a February 2020 headline in The Wall Street Journal.  The article went on to ask why when women earn the majority of college degrees and make up roughly half the workforce do so few occupy the chief executive job.  Women today lead 167 of the U.S.'s top 3,000 companies. That's more than double the share a decade ago, but still under 6%, the paper reported.  

What explains this imbalance?

... Wanting to improve their performance, leaders sometimes chased fads, imitating celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs of Apple and Jack Welch of G.E.  More recently, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX fame.

However, any time someone moves from their natural state they run the risk of losing their genuine identity.  Comparing oneself to others produces what results?  It's a practice that makes it harder to discover our inner self--the only one that can be improved.  

"Be like me" was an enticing message for those climbing the corporate ladder. Most pied pipers offered formulas that proved difficult to replicate as organizational culture and competencies are seldom transferable. Buying ideas and clothing have this in common--both should fit properly.

... Publishers took advantage of the next big thing by selling millions of books now available on eBay or sitting on shelves in the basements of public libraries. The exceptions may be "Good to Great," by Jim Collins, (four million copies), and "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," by Patrick Lencioni (three million copies).  

(C) Canberra Weekly

... Several management concepts spread quickly over the past 50 years, including "teams."  A few theories have proven themselves such as execution, a learning organization, and having the right corporate values. On the flip side 360-degree feedback, business process reengineering, and management by objectives are long past their prime.  

Nevertheless, organizations are faced with a troubling inversion--the more leadership is promoted the less there is of it.  CareerBuilder survey of 3,625 workers in the government and private sectors found that only 34% of respondents have the goal of moving into a leadership position. 


What does a half-century career bring to mind about leadership? The missing component of a larger whole is wisdom.

Having experience in finance, marketing, or operations is a given.  People skills and an ability to communicate are musts.  Add to that an understanding of how to deploy technology to compete in a digital economy. 

However, our interest in this post is examining the attributes that support or the deficiencies which detract from those leadership skills. 

Here are five:  

  • The importance of character and trust. No matter the nature, size, or structure of an enterprise, nothing substitutes for having trusted leaders, those with strong moral character.  The goal is consistency, not perfection, as human beings make mistakes.  Can a person with significant responsibility be trusted to acknowledge and correct their errors?   It's difficult, if not impossible, for someone who betrays trust to remain in a position of authority and responsibility.  
  • Being self-aware, with an awareness of your surroundings.  How many leaders have you worked for who have no conscious knowledge of their own character and feelings? That condition is a cause of failed leadership. Not knowing who you are or what you believe is a serious affliction. Some have self-awareness but are oblivious to the conditions around them.  Holistic leadership requires internal and external awareness, especially when the environment for a business or nonprofit is changing and everyone knows it but you.   
  • Leadership development is self-development. Programs to improve the quality of leaders have more success when built upon this idea--that everyone is ultimately responsible for their own development.  Managing oneself is essential to personal and professional improvement.  The company may provide an in-house university of courses and instructors but that design only bears fruit if the persons enrolled are learning, growing, and changing.  Maturity is an overlooked strength. Getting the right experiences is the best school to attend.    
  • Most leaders don't want feedback. It's rare for someone to seek your opinion and really want it. By the time an idea is on the table, it's close to being approved.  A leader with a full measure of wisdom seeks counsel and knows how to use that advice when thinking about anything.  It may be worth asking those who have to execute a change in hiring practices what they think. Offering a good question (have you considered this?) may be more valuable than a quick answer.
  • Leadership at the top is over-rated. While leadership across the organization is underrated.  Associates don't work for a company, they work for supervisors.  Those on the front lines who possess great communication skills help create a positive attitude with customers and employees.  Studies show that staff who have a good relationship with a supervisor or manager enjoy their job more and stay at the company longer.  What's that worth in a season where a record-high number of people are quitting their jobs? 

We have arrived, now, where we began, with this virtuous thought--can you be trusted?   

Regardless of background or station in life, and setting aside anxieties and doubts which only serve to undermine, may it be said that one of the distinguishing qualities of your character is that you are trustworthy in all things.  


© Bredholt &  Co.