Trust trips off the tongues of most political and business leaders with worrying ease. It is a word always easy to say but a relationship more difficult to earn. And trust simply spoken is trust rarely earned.

A seminal HBR blog post yesterday by John Kotter ( drew the important distinction between management and leadership – and reminded us why we should never mistake the former for the latter (although the two can enjoy a happy co-existence). While management is crucial (and good management no easy task), it is in essence a set of well-rehearsed processes. Leadership, Kotter argues, is “about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change”. Leadership is not about attributes; it’s about behaviour.

Trust, likewise, may well be an attribute but it also serves a higher function, with greater authority, as a behaviour. Does this mean that we are more likely to trust our leaders rather than our managers – or will we simply trust only those whose behaviours in fact demand and deserve our trust? If accepting the latter argument, this insists upon a new level of accountability – where of course said leaders are rightly judged by their actions and not (wrongly) by their words. Which makes sense. Seen through this prism, so many who talked themselves into the Trust trap might have thought about the walking of it first. Just ask Bob Diamond or any one of the reverse poster boys of last year’s corporate trust woes.

Managers of course create and protect hierarchies as ‘logical’ instruments of expression, command and control. Those hierarchies exist within institutions that are themselves often hollow creations: reality-show constructs that we are then expected to trust simply because we are told to do so by those nominally in control. This makes increasingly less sense in a borderless world that sees networks supplant hierarchies (coincidentally, the subject of another HBR post by Kotter some 18 months ago) and where hierarchies tend to view change as anathema. Conversely, in Kotter’s words, networks see the urgency for transformation around “tomorrow’s possibilities”.

Empowered citizens want to believe and actively participate in the possibilities of tomorrow – to embrace change and address pivotal issues around climate, wellbeing and social justice. We have become stuck in the tired language and un-original thinking of today – imprisoned by institutional hierarchies that fear the very liberating change that a digitally-enabled democracy will properly bring. The fragility of trust (stretched still further by the multiplicity of stakeholders and entrenched interest groups) is maybe more directly linked to this stasis of state – to a profound unhappiness with the status quo, that sees an austerity of ideas and principled actions, as well as one of economics. In the prevailing environment, the restoration of trust quite rightly feels distant.

The wise politicians and business leaders will therefore be those who not only understand the need to earn trust through behaviour but also properly empower regular people and embrace the transformation towards tomorrow’s possibilities. Empowered trust is better earned, more stable and robust. Citizen trust is more real and more resonant. As such, both are surely better behaviours and more enduring.

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