True Blue Leadership – Needed now more than ever?

We are in a world where “fake news” has become an all-too-familiar term and even in the most historically revered arenas of leadership, distrust and instability have become normalised.  The flow on effects of this dramatic leadership environment has significant implications for our workplaces and can be confusing for emerging leaders looking for examples to follow.

While writing “The Leadership Mind Switch,” a book about leading and staying relevant in the current era, we surveyed over 500 emerging leaders and asked; “what are three words that leadership means to you?” The top responses were all variations of the words “trust/trusted/trustworthy.” After digging deeper into what these future leaders meant, the characteristic of being “true blue” resonated deeply as something that is needed in leadership now more than ever.  The world needs leaders who are the “real thing.”

The history of the expression “true blue” (before the Australian colloquialism) goes back to the medieval period, to a time when all colors were given symbolic significance, and blue was the symbol of loyalty, constancy, faithfulness, and truth.  These are all characteristics that great leaders exhibit to establish trust.

Trust works two ways as a leader both online and in-person:

  1. You need to be trusted to have people choose to follow you.

2.   You need to be able to trust people you choose to work with.

As a leader, the behavior of trustworthiness, or being true blue, should be a target for the highest rating in performance reviews – above all. Without that, nothing else you do matters; your good work, your creativity, your brilliance will always be suspect.

What do trustworthy leaders do consistently?

When trustworthy leaders decide on something, they make it very clear that what they say they’ll do is safe territory.  They keep their word. This makes them reliable. And they do that both in front of people, on their devices and behind closed doors.

True blue leaders go the extra mile to understand others and lead across generations and styles with consistency in their truthfulness.

Truthfulness doesn’t mean you have to say everything that is on your mind or everything you plan to do; it does mean you don’t distort or play loose with the facts.  As one of our favorite leaders recently pointed out to us, there is a reason that the oath that lawyers take in court is to; “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” This means that they don’t embellish or leave details out.

All of this talk about trustworthiness is impossible to argue against as good behavior to model but the reality is that even with the best intent, we can still slip up. We may forget something we committed to, we may tell a story based on how we remember it, when someone else remembers it differently, we may misinterpret a question leading to a seeming mistruth.   This is called being human.  Leaders are not expected to be super-human.  In fact, the idea of true blue,“the real thing,” means that you are who you are.

Trustworthiness can be sustained, even in moments of error, if you are steadfast in clearing the air when you do slip up with something you’ve said, done, or implied. The key to being a good leader in such situations is to approach and remedy mistakes privately (so that means on the phone or in person, not in an email or text). It means apologising and trying to learn from any missteps.

Why is a focus on trustworthiness so important right now?

Being trustworthy has always been an important leadership trait.  However, given dramatic changes in demographics in recent years, with the rise of millennials and globalisation, it is more important now than ever and there is no playbook to follow – we are in a unique era.

Technological advancements have made our workplaces more complicated and exciting than ever and leaders need to balance the good and the bad of an always-on world of work.  The demise of the clear line between work and play is well underway so a higher onus is on leaders to be true to themselves and show integrity at all times.

Mobile devices and social media have made greater transparency possible in the workplace and have also opened a Pandora’s box for leaders that are prone to indiscretion. If you lie, steal, or cheat (even a little) on expense reports, fail to disclose customer mistakes, or take more time off than allocated etc., you will be found out.

Your life is recorded through online activity multiple times a day. Although that shouldn’t be the reason for being broadly trustworthy and honest, it is a reason.  According to research by Gloria Mark, professor of Informatics at the University of California, employees visit Facebook 21 times a day on average and check email 74 times. Every click is recorded and isn’t undone.

One of the other features of a multi-generational and technology-fueled workforce is that trustworthiness is viewed very differently by people according to their generation or culture – it can be in the eye of the beholder.

A 2015 Pew Research Center report showed:

19% of millennials say “most people can’t be trusted”

31% of GenX-ers say “most people can’t be trusted”

80% of Boomers say “most people can’t be trusted”

This data perspective on trust shows boomers as cynics which is probably because they’ve experienced more than the other generations mentioned. They have seen people in position of authority and power that have; behaved inconsistently, reneged on their decisions, shown confidence they didn’t actually have or broken rules and lied. Sadly, there will always be such indiscretions, it’s human nature.  Good leaders are fortified by these bad eggs.  They are even more encouraged to make an impact on the world and to show future generations that good and trustworthy leaders do exist and succeed.

In the current era, leaders not only need to set a great example and be “true blue” in both their professional and personal lives, for those that look up to them, they also need to learn to manage the huge distraction of our connected world.

By Kylie Wright-Ford, Co-Author of The Leadership Mind Switch published by McGraw Hill in 2017

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