‘Trust has become the agenda’. These were the most telling words spoken by Justin King, the outgoing CEO of Sainsbury’s, at a recent leadership event I attended. Justin bemoaned the loss of trust in the UK supermarket sector following the horse meat scandal of 2013. He also chided his CEO colleagues for not identifying the small number of ‘rotten apples’ in the CEO community and urged them to get on the front foot to communicate the positive value that business brings to society as a whole.
It was refreshing to hear a FTSE100 CEO put the topic of trust so firmly in the spotlight and it encouraged me to believe that my doctoral research on trust is not just an academic exercise but one that could also make a difference in the ‘real world’. For the more I study trust, the more I believe it has the potential to act as a bridge into the future, a porthole into a new era of corporate leadership. The main reason for this is that, across all academic fields, researchers agree that trust is important regardless of their worldview or specialist perspective. They may struggle to define trust consistently but the economists, the social scientists, the politicians, the moral philosophers and the CEO business leaders concur that without trust the world of business unravels very quickly. Some go as far as to say:-
• ‘(Trust is) essential for stable social relationships’ (Blau, 1964)
• ‘There is no single variable which so thoroughly influences interpersonal and group behaviour as does trust’(Golembiewski & McConkie, 1975)
• ‘when trust is destroyed, societies falter and collapse’(Bok, 2011)
This consensus presents the opportunity that a focus upon trust could become a unifying force in the coming years as corporate leadership is reinvented to meet the challenging expectations of 21st century stakeholders. Trust may become the goal that everyone is motivated to pursue as profit loses its credibility as the singular purpose of business affairs. It is hard to envisage what else other than trust will enable leaders to cope with what Huey and Sookdeo referred to in Fortune magazine as ‘the colliding tyrannies of speed, quality, customer satisfaction, innovation, diversity, and technology’.
As traditional authoritarian and heroic leadership continues to dismantle itself under the weight of its endless corruption and in the presence of its waning legitimacy, trust may soon be the only glue left that holds the system together – and right now our leaders are pitifully under-prepared for the scale of the trust-building challenge. In most organisations trust is not measured, it’s behavioural components are not understood and it is not a capability that is developed in a structured fashion. When considered from the perspective of the ‘S’ of our FACTS coaching model – ‘systems thinking’ – it quickly becomes clear that trust is both critically important and yet massively under-developed as a systemic capability.
When I think of the far-reaching role that trust plays in human affairs and the dramatic consequences of its loss, I am reminded of the words of the poet Yeats who, in the aftermath of the 1st World War, wrote ‘Turning and turning in the widening gyre, The falcon cannot hear the falconer, Things fall apart, The centre cannot hold, Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.’ A ‘gyre’ is any large system of rotating ocean currents, particularly those involved with large wind movements. Yeat’s prophetic words conjure up the image of a gathering storm – the perfect storm of a systemic collapse in trust. Amid the resulting din of fear, suspicion and doubt ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’, the leader loses connection with the led. This is the troubling prospect that looms if we do not do all we can, as Justin King urged us, to keep trust firmly on the agenda and help business leaders seize the opportunity it represents.