If you’re in a position of authority — as an official, boss, or parent — it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re a leader. But if the people you’re in charge of didn’t have to do what you wanted, would they do it anyway? Real leaders have voluntary followers. And truly voluntary followers trust their leaders.
In my professional work as a facilitator of teams made up of diverse volunteers from various organizations, none of whom has to do what I or the others want, I often wrestle with this leadership challenge. Much of what we do takes place during multiday residential workshops, where most interactions — in sessions and over meals, coffees, and drinks — are visible to all. As a result, I have a wonderful laboratory for observing and analyzing the interplay of leadership and trust.
In one such setting, I recently got a sharp reminder that authority doesn’t extend far without trust, and I relearned what it takes to build trust when it’s missing. I was beginning a health policy project with a team of First Nations leaders from the province of Manitoba, in Canada. The meeting had just started, and I was directing it as I usually do: taking charge, giving instructions, keeping time — relying on the authority of my experience and expertise. As I was making a presentation about the methodology we would be using, George Muswaggon, a leader of Cross Lake First Nation, spoke up in a clear, calm, matter-of-fact voice: “I don’t trust you.”
I was worried by this challenge to my leadership of the project. I didn’t know how to respond, and so I continued doggedly with my presentation. At the same time, I appreciated where George was coming from. For centuries, in Canada and elsewhere, indigenous people have been colonized, massacred, oppressed, marginalized, and cheated by white people. Why, indeed, should he trust me, a white facilitator he’d just met?
After I had finished my presentation, another participant asked George if he trusted me yet. He replied, “No, but I trust the process.”
At that moment, I knew what to say: “I am not asking you to trust me or the process right now. I am proposing that we start by taking a next step together, then see how it goes and decide what to do next.” He agreed, and we went on to the next item on the agenda. As we continued our work, I remembered advice I’d been given 30 years earlier by Roger Fisher, author of the negotiating bible Getting to Yes. He’d told me, “Don’t be trusting; be trustworthy.”
No matter how powerful they are, when people show themselves to be untrustworthy, through something they do inside or outside the team, their influence vanishes.
So I tried to earn the trust of the team by shifting the way I was leading. I could see that in this particular context I’d been excessively confident in my own expertise. So, I became less directive and more flexible. I reduced my front-of-the-room role and focused on supporting my First Nations facilitator colleagues, and I deferred to them on matters of local protocol and ceremony. I stopped making presentations and started picking up empty coffee cups.
In the months that followed, the team moved forward, with many twists and turns, and made progress on its work. George and I got to know and like each other, and over a meal at a later workshop, I brought up our first meeting and the way he’d challenged me. “The history of my people means that we cannot dole out trust like candy,” he said. “But I observed you and prayed and decided that you are a good person. This trust is simple and will last.”
Maybe in typical workplace settings, it’s unusual to experience such deep-rooted wariness or, if it exists, find anyone forthright enough to articulate it. But the principle — that people will only freely follow leaders they trust to be acting for the good of the people they’re leading — still applies. And such trust depends as much on the context of the work as on the character of the leader. The Manitoba First Nations team became more willing to follow me, but only on certain matters and in certain domains; in other matters and domains, they followed other people, or no one.
People will usually follow those who have the most positional authority and concomitant control of resources, but also will follow those with other forms of power, such as eloquence, passion, sincerity, commitment, and charisma. In the teams I work with, people tend to pay the most attention to and be most influenced by those with both types of power. But sometimes people will even choose to follow less senior individuals if they have inspiring ideas and energy. No matter how powerful they are, though, when people show themselves to be untrustworthy, through something they do inside or outside the team, their influence vanishes. Others might still pay attention to them, but now only for transactional purposes. Those “leaders” are no longer really leading.
If you want to be a real leader, one with voluntary followers, remember that you must earn and keep your people’s trust. They will carefully assess your attitude and actions, in particular whether you look out for others in addition to yourself. If their assessment is that you are trustworthy, they’ll stick with you.