Sep 2

Authentic Leadership, A Matter Of Trust

Martin Aldergard
Martin Aldergard is partner and founding member of ENPEO Consulting.

According to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2009, the trust among general public (including employees) of corporate CEO’s and leaders is at it’s lowest point since the barometer started 10 years ago. Not surprisingly.

I started to think and read of what it is that drives trust as a leader and what it means being an ‘authentic’ leader. Is it someone perceived as genuine and acting based on strong and real ‘principles’? Someone that provides clear evidence of fairness? Someone that provides mutual respect and two-way communication?

I don’t know! To explore further I instead tried to recount my early experience as a leader and see what I could learn. My story from the Swedish army might serve you as a metaphor and help you to reflect on how you build trust as a leader in your own situation. So here we go…

…once upon a time…

…I learned my basic leadership lessons as a young officer in the Swedish army. As the chief of a 30-man strong unit responsible for maintaining radio-link connections over large areas up north, my challenge was to lead without having my teams at an arms reach. The usual army command and control tactics didn’t work. My unit consisted of 8 teams of 3 men each, all teams dispersed far from each other located on some remote hill tops. Each team erected radio towers, hoisted antennas, connected radio- and transmission equipment and operated a point in the  network for a few days, until getting the marching order for relocating to another position. They all had to act very independently and solve unforeseen problems without myself being on location. The remaining men formed a field maintenance and supply team.

Learning Point 1
People need the big picture in order to deliver high performance

In the army, the normal procedure was briefings in the command center. All other information release was kept to a strict need to know bases. For my teams this meant they only got to understand at what time they should have a connection established from where and in what direction; nothing more than what was needed to complete their part of the job. In other army units this principle might have worked; if things were not going as planned, the leader was close-by to issue new commands and instructions. My teams were up to 200 km away…and as a result our overall performance was a disaster. On-time readiness was very low. Links operating within specifications very low. Initiative to solve unforeseen problems very low. A typical example was during wintertime when a road up the mountain might not have been cleared as planned, and in that case the team would just wait at the foot of the mountain, or even worse start driving back to base to get instructions.

From spending most of my time at the command center trying to remotely control the teams and waiting (sometimes in vain) for their reports, I started to spend 80-90% of my time on the road visiting and talking directly to them. With each team I discussed the bigger picture; what we were doing, why this was important, why timing was critical, which part they ‘delivered’, etc, etc…I was constantly driving from one team to the next. One advantage was I didn’t get so much ‘heat’ from my superior at command center, just because the fact I was never around :-)

Step by step performance improved as my teams started to realize the importance of the work they performed and how they fitted into the big picture. One great story is about a team that used the whole night to winch their huge 6 wheel truck with all equipment up a mountain on an uncleared road just to try to make the deadline. They now knew getting the equipment on location on time was critically important and they didn’t waist time waiting for the snow plough to arrive.

In summary, what happened?
I understood where my place as a leader was. With my teams and not at the command center.
I shared what I knew with them. As openly as I could to give them an honest understanding of how they fitted in.
They saw that I relied on them, and that I would travel even during the night and through tough weather conditions to reach them with the information they needed. They started to feel important and accountable.

Learning Point 2
Get out of their way, but go the extra mile

After ensuring all teams understood the big picture and the objectives, I got out of their ways to let them focus on the job. When their performance improved I could trust them the freedom of relaxed control. So, suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands…what should I do? I became the Chief Entertainment Officer.

One example is food, which is very important for morale in the army. My teams couldn’t get the food served at the field canteen. Instead they had to heat precooked and canned meals at their remote locations and eat this boring, terrible tasting, stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After 2 weeks in the field they were sick of it. According to regulations these were the supplies for my unit and there was little room to change. With a somewhat unspecific purchasing request to my superior, I used budget for ‘petrol’ and started to buy things like fruit, dairy products, bread and newspapers every time I passed a petrol station on my way to a team. When I came for a visit I made sure to bring something that made them feel good.

Another example is the chance of a shower. Even during long and tough exercises it was normal that we got the chance for a shower and a fresh set of clothes at least once. All, but my teams since they were stuck up on some mountain. I took the ‘liberty’ of training my supply team to handle the basics of the equipment and they would then go for a supply round to each teams, take over their duty for 1/2 day and let the team take the supply truck to go for a shower. Orders were that the stations could never be left unmanned and by creating an extra team we could navigate around this ‘inconvenience’.

In summary, what happened?
I focused my attention on the ground service to my teams. Not only myself, but also my support team now spend majority of time on the road serving “our customers”. We didn’t always follow correct procedure but we worked towards making the goals. My teams noticed and payed back not only with superior performance, but also with a strong Can do attitude. They quickly picked up the habit of finding ‘alternative’ solutions and their creative ways of always positively get the job done, was fantastic.

Learning Point 3
Treat everyone equal – maintain accountability to shared standards

This was my toughest lesson since it came from a big mistake I made as direct result of my previous success. I though I had the secret receipe and tried to care even more for my teams. One late Friday evening I came to visit a team and stumbled right into an improvised party including alcohol. This was clearly a serious break of military protocol and there was a real safety risk since our work included climbing high towers, handling generators and lifting heavy equipment. Bad, really bad; they were clearly way out of boundce. But on the other hand, this was one of the highest performing teams who I could always trust to get the job done. I thought I care for them a little extra and decided they deserved the freedom they taken. I even joined in their celebration to build even more ‘goodwill’. Wow, was I mistaken.

In summary, what happened?
I applied double standards on one of our most important principles – safety and readiness. The rumor of the party spread to everyone else with lightning speed. The trust I had gained from my whole unit fell like a stone; anything I asked for was questioned and the good spirit of cooperation between teams was hurt from rumors, feeling of unfairness and bad mouthing. Other teams started to take advantage of their freedom; discipline, morale and performance sunk.

My biggest surprise? I even lost the respect from the team I thought I had given a ‘favor’. I believe this is because they felt I didn’t help them to realize they had stepped over the line. I learned it is my job to give my teams the freedom they need to do their jobs, but I also to be firm  and very clear, whenever our basic principles are breached. People can make mistakes and they need help to get back on track . This was a role that I hadn’t understood until now.

Learning Point 4
We all do mistakes – especially as leaders

It took a lot of hard work for me to rebuild the lost trust. Fortunately, my mistake was so obvious to everyone that I had no way of hiding and it ‘forced’ me to speak honestly about the problem…I had nothing to loose. After a lot of open and straightforward discussions with each team, and together when there was an occasion, we slowly built back a common understanding of what behavior was acceptable, and what was unacceptable in our unit. Freedom with accountability. In hindsight we would never have reached the same level of internal alignment, understanding and team spirit, if I would not have done my mistake.

In summary, what happened?
I had no other choice than to be open and let my teams in on finding the solution. It was hard but I learned that my basic values and capabilities as a leader were not compromised by a mistake and by not having the ready answer. The open, honest and respectful communication that ensued was the key to rebuild my own trustworthiness and the trust within my unit. We managed to reestablish our levels of excellent performance. Happy ending story!


In summary, I learned the hard way that as a leader I can build trust and authenticity…

  • …if I share the information I have, and help my people to understand what it means to them
  • …if I step out of peoples way and give them both the freedom and the trust to get the job done
  • …if I go the extra mile to serve them
  • …if I act as the guardian of shared standards; as a coach, as a role model and if necessary as the enforcer
  • …if I talk about my mistakes openly and enroll people in finding shared solutions that move us forward as a team

In summary, what I learn perhaps one would say is common sense, and covered in most leadership training using more elegant language and in more ‘advanced’ settings. However, these lessons form an integral part of who I am as a leader today. So, how am I doing?

Quite honestly, I still keep doing most of the same mistakes and need to work hard to try follow my own advice :-)
How are you doing? How do you apply these ’simple’ lessons in your context, to improve your trustworthiness as an authentic leader?

Kind regards
Martin Aldergard

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009 at 12:34 and is filed under Leadership. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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