Trust and Inspire: How Truly Great Leaders Unleash Greatness in Others
The highest temperature ever recorded on the face of the earth is a sizzling 134 degrees Fahrenheit. This record was set on July 10, 1913, in California’s Death Valley.
Nothing grows in Death Valley because it’s so hot and dry. Average rainfall is one to two inches a year. Not too long ago, a total of only half an inch of rain fell in forty months. No wonder it looks like such a barren wasteland.
Amazingly, all that changed in the spring of 2005. For no apparent reason, six inches of rain fell over a brief period in the winter of 2004. When spring arrived, observers were stunned to see a rich carpet of wildflowers completely covering the floor of Death Valley.
Maybe the place isn’t dead after all. Maybe it’s just dormant, waiting for the right conditions. In fact, the late Sir Kenneth Robinson, British author and international adviser on education, argued in a stirring TED Talk that it would be better called “Dormant Valley”—not as catchy, maybe, but a lot more accurate.
People are a lot like that. We have greatness inside each of us, though sometimes it is just as dormant as the wildflowers in Death Valley. The seed is always there—it just needs the right conditions to flourish.
Like those six inches of rain, truly great leaders can create the right conditions to awaken the potential within a person. Approaching leadership like a gardener, these leaders recognize that the power is in the seed. They curate conditions in which a person can flourish—not unlike the soil, water, air, and sunlight that enable a seed to flourish. As a result, they see that person rise beyond every imaginable expectation.
Some of us have been fortunate enough to be led by someone who has done for us what the rain did for the wildflowers in Death Valley. For the rest of us, however, we’ve lived a much different reality.
When it comes to the way we lead—in the workplace, in the classroom, at home—we’ve been repeating the same style of leadership for a long time. Many leaders still view their role as much more like a machinist than a gardener. They approach it first with the priority that there is a job to be done, and their role is to leverage the resources and people at their disposal to accomplish the task at hand.
Let’s call this style of leadership “Command & Control.”
Has this approach worked? When you think about it, does it work for you? Let me ask a more pertinent question—does this leadership approach work on you?
In fact, most of us have wanted a different way to lead and be led. But so far we’ve only been able to improve incrementally. We’ve known what we want to move from—Command & Control—but we’re less clear on what we want to move to.
This book provides the answer.
In the vein of Socrates, who said, “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms,” I suggest a simple term for the change we need:
Trust & Inspire.
Trust & Inspire is the new way to lead. Its goal is to unleash people’s talent and potential—to truly empower and inspire them—rather than try to contain and control them. It’s about trusting people to do the right thing and inspiring them to make meaningful contributions.
It’s about connecting with people, through caring and belonging, so that we—and they—can successfully respond to our disruptive world. It’s about then connecting people to purpose so they feel inspired not only by an organization’s leaders, but also by a sense of purpose, meaning, and contribution in their work.
At its core, a Trust & Inspire paradigm flows from a fundamental belief in the potential and greatness inside people. Even—and especially—when it’s unseen.
Command & Control is about getting things done, but it misses the potential power of the people who get those things done. Command & Control is about being efficient with people, trying to motivate them instead of inspiring them. It’s about self-interest and competing rather than serving and caring. And if all else fails, it’s about barking out the orders so everyone does exactly what they’re supposed to do—not because they want to, but because they have to.
In short, it’s about controlling people instead of unleashing their potential.
The game has radically changed, so why are so many of us still clinging to the old style of leadership? Operating from a Command & Control paradigm today is like trying to play tennis with a golf club. The tool is completely ill-suited to the reality, to the game being played.
I’d like to invite you to do a simple exercise: think of someone you know who might fit the description of a Command & Control kind of leader—a boss, manager, administrator, coworker, teacher, friend, coach, parent, or neighbor.
Now ask yourself, what is it like to work with this person?
I frequently do this exercise with an audience, and people are often surprised at the visceral reactions they have. You might be having that same kind of experience right now. Remembering someone who stifled you with rules and restrictions can fill you with frustration and exhaustion, sometimes even anger and pain.
Now think of someone you know who might be described as a Trust & Inspire leader, someone who believed in you and gave you opportunities and chances.
Ask yourself the same question. What is it like to work with this person? Remembering this kind of leader can fill you with gratitude, excitement, and a sense of confidence and fulfillment, even years later.
Command & Control in Action
Many years ago, I went on a sales call to a small, family-owned manufacturing company where I met with most of the company’s executive team. As we sat down, they began to explain the positives and negatives that existed in their company culture.
After several minutes of back-and-forth between these executives, one man interrupted loudly, the exasperation clear in his voice, “Can we just get real here? Our biggest problem is that we’re managed by a control freak!” The founder and current CEO—a guy everyone referred to as “Senior”—wasn’t in the room, but his presence certainly was. Others in the room began to hesitantly chime in, agreeing.
“It’s true, he can’t let go of anything.”
“He’s constantly looking over our shoulder.”
“He can’t pass anything on. And it’s time for him to pass it all on. Junior is ready.”
After a bit of probing, I learned that “Junior” was the founder’s son and heir apparent to the company. Junior had been working with the company since graduating college. He was well respected, and everyone felt it was time for him to take over. They all believed that his leadership would make the company more relevant and successful. Junior himself believed it, too—he’d told his father multiple times, “I’m ready, Dad. I can do it.”
But despite Junior’s confidence and the team’s urging, Senior refused to let go.
“It’s so frustrating not to be trusted; I can’t imagine how Junior feels,” one member of the team lamented.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter how Junior feels if Senior doesn’t feel Junior is ready,” another said.
“But Junior feels ready?” I asked. “And you all feel he’s ready, too?”
“Absolutely!” came the consensus. “We all believe in him, and we know he’d do a great job.”
Suddenly the man who had originally broached the subject of their controlling boss smacked his hands down on the table in frustration and exclaimed, “For crying out loud, Junior is sixty-seven years old!”
I tried my best not to look as shocked as I felt.
I had imagined Senior to be in his fifties or sixties and Junior in his thirties or forties, sympathizing with how it might be hard for Senior to move on. Now it was downright comical to consider that Senior—who was most likely in his late eighties or nineties—still could not bring himself to cede control to his qualified and competent son, who had been working in the company for many decades!
From the dejected feeling in the room, it was also clear that Senior’s need for control impacted not just Junior, but every aspect of the company. And it impacted results—the company wasn’t thriving as Senior’s leadership style was holding everything back. It was holding back his company’s growth and progress. His employees. Even his own son.
Like Senior, most Command & Control people aren’t bad people. Most are decent people with fine character and good intent. But far too often their style gets in the way of their intent.
Even when a leader is working toward a positive, beneficial outcome, a Command & Control approach leads to coercion, compliance, containment, and ultimately to stagnation. A Trust & Inspire leader, on the other hand, works toward that same beneficial outcome but does it through commitment, creativity, and the unleashing of talent and potential.
Here’s the revealing thing: most of us are probably a lot more like Senior than we’d like to think. In fact, perhaps the single biggest barrier to becoming a Trust & Inspire leader is that we think we already are one!
Trust & Inspire in Action
I learned about Trust & Inspire as a child with my father, who was trying to teach me how to take care of our family’s large yard. Some of you may be familiar with this story, from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which my father had dubbed “green and clean.”
My parents used to hold weekly family meetings. My siblings and I would gather—often grudgingly once we became teenagers—to hear about our parents’ plans for the week or for new family activities or household chores. During one such family meeting the year I turned seven, Dad had asked us kids who would be willing to take care of the yard. I eagerly responded that I would. Not because I cared what the lawn looked like but just because I would’ve done anything for my dad.
After the meeting, Dad took me outside to survey the yard so I’d learn what the job required. It was at the beginning of the summer and our lawn was starting to yellow. “Son, your job is green and clean,” he began. “Let me show you what green looks like—let’s go over to our neighbor’s house.” We walked over and admired the cool, green blades on our neighbor’s lawn. “That’s the color we’re after, son.”
As we walked back to our yard, he said, “Now let me show you what clean means—let’s clean up half of our yard.” Together we picked up trash and debris on half of our lawn. As we paused, he pointed to the half we hadn’t cleaned and said, “Notice how that looks compared to the area we just cleaned.” Even for a seven-year-old, the difference was obvious. “What we just did is green and clean. Son, your job is green and clean. It’s up to you how you want to do it. But I’ll tell you how I’d do it if you want.”
I realized I hadn’t thought of the logistics of all this. “How’d you do it, Dad?” I asked.
“I’d turn on the sprinklers! But you may want to use buckets or a hose or spit all day long. It’s up to you. All we care about is what, son?”
“Green and clean!” I exclaimed.
“What’s green look like?” Dad asked. I pointed with enthusiasm to our neighbor’s lawn. “Good. What’s clean?” I pointed proudly to the area we had just cleaned up.
“Good. It’s your job, son. Guess who your boss is?”
“Who?” I asked, my brow furrowing with confusion.
“You are!” Dad told me, and I smiled with satisfaction at that answer.
“Guess who your helper is?” he asked.
“I am! You boss me!”
“I do?” I asked eagerly, a smile sneaking across my face at the thought of being in charge.
“If you ever need help and I have time, you just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it!” He smiled. “And guess who judges you, son?”
This time I nodded knowingly and pointed to myself.
“Right, you judge yourself. How do you think you judge yourself, son?”
“Green and clean!” I proclaimed proudly.
“Good! Why don’t you think about it for a day or two and let me know if you want to do it.”
When Saturday rolled around, Dad asked how I felt about the proposed deal. “I’ll do it!”
He took my hand and shook it firmly. “Deal!”
But I did nothing, for days on end. It wasn’t my plan to do nothing. Honestly, I think I just forgot. Or there was something more fun and exciting happening over at the neighbors’ so I did that instead.
When Tuesday morning rolled around, my father was hit by the heat of the summer day as he walked out the front door to head to work. He looked at the neighbor’s yard—green and clean, freshly manicured. He looked at our yard—yellow and burning up, garbage on the side lawn, three feet from his car.
He was willing to cut me a little slack. Not working on Saturday or Sunday made sense. But Monday? He told me later how he was ready to yell, “You get out there! Get over here and fix this!”
He knew that the moment he did that, he’d likely kill my initiative. He knew I’d clean up the yard if he came down on me hard, but what would happen the next day when he wasn’t there? Instead he bit his tongue and decided to see what the yard looked like when he got home from work.
Later, when he drove home, our yard came into view as he rounded the corner. It was more cluttered and yellow than ever, and I was across the street playing ball.
“Hey, son! How’s it going?”
I waved at him and replied, “Just fine, Dad!” And I was just fine—I was playing ball! I definitely wasn’t thinking about the yard.
We had agreed that we’d walk around the yard twice a week so I could show Dad how it was going. He decided to make good on that deal. “How’s it going in the yard, son?” he called out.
In that moment, I stopped being fine. I hesitated, eyes darting away as I held the football in my hands. “Uh… just fine?” I squeaked out.
Dad bit his tongue and went in the house. He dug deep, reminding himself why he was doing this: Reaffirm my purpose: raise kids, not grass, he thought to himself.
After dinner, he put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “Why don’t we walk around the yard as we agreed, and you can show me how it’s going?”
My lip started trembling. By the time we got out to the front yard, I was openly bawling. “It’s so hard!” I moaned, even though I hadn’t done a single thing.
Dad spoke softly: “Anything I can do to help, son?”
“Would ya?” I tentatively asked.
“What was our agreement?”
“That you’d help me if you had time,” I said cautiously.
“I’ve got time!”
“You do? Okay—I’ll be right back!” I ran into the house and came out with two garbage bags. I handed one to Dad, and we cleaned up the yard together.
I asked for help only a few more times that summer. It was my job. I gained ownership and a sense of pride in holding myself accountable. As for Dad, he took the time to set up the agreement and reaffirm it. He didn’t backslide on it when he saw mistakes. He kept believing in me and holding me accountable in the way agreed.
And me? I felt trusted. I felt trusted by someone important to me—my dad. Because I felt trusted, I did not want to let my dad down. I was too young to care about money or status or appearance. But I did care about my dad, so being trusted by him was very inspiring to me. I responded to his trust in me, and I took care of the yard. It was green, and it was clean.
While the yard looked great, more importantly I felt great. I gained confidence in my ability to keep the yard green and clean and I was eager to continue to do so. I experienced firsthand the power of being trusted, and this simple interaction at age seven became a defining moment for my understanding of leadership.
A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader; a great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.
The truth is, we all want to be trusted. To be trusted is the most inspiring form of human motivation. People who trust those they lead bring out the very best in them—and in all of us.
Trusting others is among the most important of our life’s works.
Similarly, people yearn to be inspired. It can feel as vital to our existence as air is to our lungs. In fact, the word inspire comes from the Latin root inspirare, which means “to breathe into.” Put another way, inspire means to bring life into something that is lifeless. So, to inspire someone is to breathe life into them.
Yet most people today are dangerously low on inspiration. In those precious moments when it touches us—like watching a child take a first step or runners cross the finish line at a marathon—it feels like a breath of fresh air.
To inspire is to take an experience and imbue it with purpose, to take a job and make it meaningful. It is to encourage a worker to become a creator, an employee to become a colleague, a vendor to become a partner, a group to become a team. As leaders, our job is to inspire the people around us—they want it. We all do. I’m reminded of this beautiful statement by the humanitarian and philosopher Dr. Albert Schweitzer: “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”
When we inspire other people, we rekindle the inner spirit, both theirs and ours.
When we inspire other people, we breathe new life, purpose, and passion into them and us. We offer a new perspective, not only of their work and world but also of them as humans. Because we genuinely see greatness within them, they begin to see possibilities for themselves they hadn’t previously considered—or even seen. They look beyond artificial limitations.
Inspiring others is among the most important of our life’s works.
Being a Trust & Inspire leader provides a lens for seeing and living life—a way of being—not merely a tool that you use when convenient. Both you and the people you lead feel that they can and should be both trusted and inspired. Both of you believe they can create meaningful contributions and find a sense of purpose. Both of you believe that together, you all can produce something far greater than anyone could on your own.
Face it: has Command & Control ever truly worked for people? Has it ever been effective in a family setting? Did teachers hitting students with rulers for misbehavior ever truly encourage or inspire students to want to learn? Were employees ever inspired to work harder when their company implemented the time clock or installed employee “surveillance software”? Command & Control might have gotten compliance from kids, students, and employees in the past, but it certainly did not spark creativity, excitement, inspiration, or commitment. And it most certainly won’t do any of those things today.
Intellectually, we understand this. And yet in spite of all our progress, the reality is stark: most leaders today are still operating with the old style of Command & Control. We’ve just become far better at it, much more advanced and sophisticated in its manifestation—implementing a style we might call “Enlightened Command & Control.” But our fundamental beliefs of how we see people and leadership haven’t changed much. Far too many of us are still falling back on an outdated, Industrial Age approach to address today’s challenges.
What about you?
If you’re still trying to win by containing people instead of unleashing their potential, by motivating others instead of inspiring them, by focusing on competing and self-interest above caring and service—you’re playing tennis with a golf club.
The game has changed.
Pick up a racquet. I’ll show you how.
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|Epub||June 4, 2022|
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