Authority alone won’t get leaders very far

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Photograph 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.

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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 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 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 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 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.