If I lead, will they follow? Provoking followership through trust

Amid the smoke and rubble of destroyed buildings stand a defiant Ukrainian people.  They are determined to protect their homeland from Russian invaders.  The Russians have more weapons, equipment, and trained soldiers.  But, within the borders of Ukraine, the Russians don’t have more people, and they don’t have a leader like Ukrainian President Zelensky.

Many leaders must be looking at the situation in Ukraine and wondering how Zelensky has gotten so many people to face down tanks, missiles, and Russian atrocities.  People from other nations are flooding into the country to help stand against the Russian invaders and nations are moving away from historically neutral stances to support sanctions against Russia and lend aid to Ukraine. The question is how is has Zelensky been able to accomplish all this? The simple answer is trust.  The Ukrainian people trust the cause and they trust their leader.  For students of leadership, the biggest takeaway is clear: leaders who inspire high levels of trust in those they lead can get them to do exceptional things.

Ample evidence exists for the decline in trust in all sectors of society over the last several decades and much ink has been spilled on the impacts of that decline. Precious little has been written about how to actually build trust.  Zelensky’s own popularity was in decline prior to the invasion. And yet now people are willing to follow him into hell on earth. How has he made this transition?

I hold a PhD in Business from Duke, wrote my doctoral thesis on building trust in hostile environments, and have spent the last 20 years helping individuals and organizations better understand what trust is, how it works, and how to build it. Every dictionary defines trust slightly differently, but I define trust as the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable when we are uncertain about how others will act. This definition includes elements of uncertainty and vulnerability, which together serve as the basis for trust and combine to give us a level of perceived risk.  If our perception of the level of risk is beneath our threshold or risk tolerance, we trust.  If our perception of risk exceeds that threshold, we don’t trust.  This means that building trust becomes an exercise in reducing perceptions of vulnerability and uncertainty.

Continuing with the Ukraine scenario, we all see significant vulnerabilities and uncertainties stemming from war. The vulnerabilities of the Ukrainians appear clear and obvious: loss of their way of life, all of their worldly goods, their dignity and even their lives. Media reports tell us that the Russian troops are attacking civilians and committing war crimes as the conflict unfolds. And in the case of uncertainty, the questions range from whether will Ukraine be absorbed into Russia. What will the future look like for Ukraine? Clearly, the Ukrainian people are experiencing a high level of vulnerability and uncertainty. How can any leader succeed in building trust in such daunting circumstances?

Roger Mayer (AMR vol. 20, # 3, 1995) and his colleagues wrote one of the seminal works on trust focused on the elements that make us as individuals more easily trusted. Their work proposed three basic elements that signalled trustworthiness.  Those elements were benevolence, integrity, and ability.

Benevolence is the belief that you have my best interests at heart and that you will act on those interests even if it’s not in your own short-term best interest.  President Zelensky has done remarkably well at showing benevolence towards his people. He has lobbied relentlessly on their behalf with the rest of the world.  He has sought to negotiate peace with the Russians despite their thuggish behaviour.  He has tried to negotiate cease fires to allow civilians to leave combat areas.

President Zelensky has shown remarkable integrity. He resolutely stayed in the capital even though he is a primary target of the Russian offensive. He could easily have left his people behind to fend for themselves and continued to advocate for them from a safe distance in the west of the country or from exile. Instead, he can often be seen walking the streets of Kyiv and talking with the people he serves.

I use Professor Tony Simons definition of integrity introduced in his book The Integrity Dividend 2008. He defines integrity as following through on promises and consistency between the values we express and the actions we take. Once again President Zelensky scores well. He has made the values of protecting Ukraine and its people clear and it’s easy to see the alignment between his values and the actions he has taken. Consistently President Zelensky has lobbied for his people with the international community. He has not asked that others attack Russia on behalf of the Ukraine but has asked for sanctions against their actions and support for his people

Ability is the competence to actually do what you say you will do.  If we think about what excellence would look like for a world leader it would be hard to argue that Zelensky doesn’t tick all the boxes. He has advocated for his people with the Russian invaders and with leaders and populations the world over. He has managed to convince other nations to impose significant sanctions on Russia, even in instances where those sanctions have had negative implications for the countries imposing them. Countries that have historically held a neutral stance for any conflict have sided with Ukraine and Zelensky. The Swiss have agreed to impose sanctions on Russia, a higher level of partisan involvement than it took against Nazi Germany. Zelensky has demonstrated enormous competence.

The military forces of Ukraine have also shown competence. They are outnumbered and often forced to rely on outdated equipment yet, despite the challenges they face, the Ukrainian defenders have mounted a remarkably defiant defence. They have not only held their ground far more effectively than expected, but they have also inflicted significant losses on the Russian aggressors. Not only are Ukraine’s forces showing remarkable grit and determination people from many other nations are entering the war zone to provide support, aid, and even to fight.

Some will argue that not all of the credit for this belongs to President Zelensky. He certainly deserves at least some credit as it is not hard to imagine a less effective leader generating dramatically different results than the ones we are seeing.

While many of us tend to favor the ability lever, it is often the benevolence lever that has the greatest impact for those we lead.  Subordinates want their bosses to be competent but they really want them to have the best interests of those they lead at heart. Zelensky has done well on all three dimensions but it’s clear that he shines when it comes to actually caring for his people.

But what really has caused President Zelensky to stand out is the context. He is the democratically elected leader of a nation being invaded by one of the world’s largest armies. He is pitted against a man who appears to care for no one and nothing other than his bloated ego. Putin also has enough nuclear weapons at his disposal to cause significant lasting harm to the entire planet. This threat, which Putin and his lackeys are not shy about broadcasting, causes significant vulnerability for leaders from other nations around the world.

The contrast between Zelensky and Putin couldn’t be starker. While Zelensky looks to the needs of his people and advocates on their behalf Putin provokes ever greater suffering for his. Nowhere is the contrast sharper than when it comes to benevolence. Putin has argued that he sees no difference between Russians and Ukrainians. He has then proceeded to slaughter innocents in the Ukraine.

Perhaps Putin is telling the truth when he says he sees no difference between Russians and Ukrainians because his actions aren’t just causing suffering for Ukrainians. Putin is suppressing and jailing all who disagree with him inside Russia. The sanctions piling up against Russia have had a profound impact on its currency and economy. This once again is a preventable harm that Putin’s actions are visiting on those he leads. While he and his friends have had assets seized, they still seem to be well protected, his people don’t appear to be insulated at all. Still, Putin acts like a petulant child indifferent to the needs of those he supposedly leads and focused solely on his own aspirations.

For Zelensky, the needs of his people are many and obvious. A war tends to make these things clear. For other leaders, work needs to be done. This means adopting the perspective of those you lead and including them in the conversations about what benevolence, integrity, and ability actually look like for them before you try to demonstrate those traits yourself.

President Zelensky has risen to the occasion and shown us a remarkable example of leadership.  He has built trust not only with the people he leads but with people all over the world. This task has been made somewhat easier for him by the context he finds himself in. The context has created a unity and clarity of purpose for the people of Ukraine. It would have been easy for President Zelensky to falter and not show the courage and compassion that have so inspired the world. Instead, he stepped up and almost all of us are better for having witnessed his leadership.

Meet Darryl

Darryl is one of the world’s leading experts on Trust.  He teaches leaders how to find and use their most powerful tool.  A tool that is always in a leader’s control, how to effectively build Trust in their relationships.