It is perhaps an unusual strategy for a writer to begin an article by telling the reader that he is struggling for words to express his feelings. But that is precisely where I find myself today. I struggle to describe the past year. Was it a year of puzzling paradoxes? Or one of rumination and reflection? Was it a year of copious contradictions? Or was it one of introspection and insight? I’m just tempted to go with “All of the above” as the only choice.
Like many of you, I’ve spent all of last year experiencing life largely within four walls. Immersed in seemingly unending, but incredibly interesting work. Paradoxically, I also feel strangely empowered with more time for reflection than the hustle and bustle of “normal” life used to allow us in the pre-2020 days. One of the topics I’ve been thinking a lot about is how organizations go from good to great and more broadly, what makes any endeavor involving a group of humans, great. I deliberately chose the word “endeavor” in order to keep it open ended. Examples of endeavors are companies, governments, non-profits, sports teams, families or even just 1 on 1 relationships.
I believe the underlying magic that powers greatness in any collective human endeavor is TRUST. In several of my external engagements where I talk about PayPal’s business, I am inordinately fond of quoting that we are not so much in the Fintech business, as we are in the Trust business – because without the trust of our customers, we would have no business. However, until this year afforded me with ample opportunities for introspection and reflection, I hadn’t really thought about how fundamental the concept of trust is to human existence, let alone leadership and greatness.
Let me use an example that is pertinent to today’s context. Vaccines. Today, when we line up to get a vaccine, we trust that the company manufacturing the vaccine has done its research properly. We trust that a relevant regulatory authority (like the FDA) has done the due diligence in verifying the manufacturer’s research. We trust that the supply-chain has integrity and the vaccine being shot into our arm isn’t spurious. We trust that the nurse or doctor injecting the drug into our arm knows how not to inadvertently push an air bubble into our blood stream. We trust that if something goes wrong (like our car not being in the parking lot when we finish getting the vaccine and are ready to drive home) the system has checks and balances to not just prevent mishaps, but to rectify them and compensate us for damage if things go wrong. When all else seems lost, in God we trust. I trust that you get my point.
This got me thinking about a specific endeavor that most of us are passionately engaged in – helping our respective organizations achieve success on behalf of the customers we serve, the communities we live in and the colleagues we work with. How does trust play a role in achieving success?
Let me start with an understanding of what success means to ME (your mileage may vary). It has meant different things at different points in my life and is constantly evolving. Where I stand today, success is not just about achieving the outcome I desire when I aim for a certain goal. To me success is about also enjoying the process of working on the goal, feeling psychological and emotional safety while I strive to achieve, learning many new things along the way as part of my growth, becoming wiser, more confident and self-assured as a result of the journey. I think of these as elements of success much more than the mere achievement of the outcome. When you think of “success” more holistically in terms that are more inclusive of the journey/process and not exclusively about outcomes, the aspect of trust becomes clearer. It is the unseen pixie dust that powers greatness in all our lives. The environments in which we enjoy “success” have a few common attributes. They are often the happiest environments where we can be our authentic selves, where we are motivated to step up and go the extra mile, where we lend a hand to others and celebrate progress in others’ lives much more than we do in our own, where self-interest recedes into the background in the warm glow of shared accomplishment – these are environments that are replete in trust between all constituents. An environment where you truly believe everybody is rooting for you. An environment where you don’t need to look over your shoulder, play politics, be “street-smart” or outwit others in order to progress. An environment where you can focus on doing the right thing for the right reasons at all times and trust others to constantly and consistently do the same.
In my experience, most epiphanies creep up on me in the middle of doing something mundane when my mind wanders hither and thither – when I am vacuuming the house, when I am looking out the window into the distance to give my eyes a break, when I am cooking or exercising. My epiphany around trust was not just that it was the secret ingredient that differentiated great companies from the good ones, but also that inserting, magnifying and nurturing trust in every direction within the organization is the primary purpose of leadership. I started to read more about this topic and came across a wonderful article on HBR that delves deeper into the topic of how Everything Begins with Trust. The article talks about the primary drivers of trust – Authenticity (do people experience the real YOU?), Empathy (do people perceive that you really care about them?) and Logic (do people believe in your reasoning and judgment?). The article also has very practical advice on how to improve ourselves on each of these three dimensions.
Inserting trust into every ecosystem we exist in is not the exclusive responsibility of leaders. Every single one of us has this responsibility. Inserting trust is an act we can mindfully engage in both as a generous act to make the world better for others and as a selfish act to make our own lives better. I will leave you with an uplifting and joyous image of trust in action. Have you ever experienced a baby laughing with a mixture of excitement, thrill and happiness when tossed in the air? Where do these positive feelings in the baby stem from? They stem from the deep trust the baby feels in both your intent and ability to catch her as she falls back down. Imagine the childlike lightness of a world where we could live and work with such radical and innocent trust in everything and everyone. Now that would be a world worth building!
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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