Without trust the nation falls apart

31st January 2023

Few of us are complete leaders. Most of us need at least one other person to complement our strengths and correct our weaknesses; but this complementarity requires trust.

Sol Kerzner was a very successful entrepreneur, with Sun City as physical evidence. But I was told he needed someone to come after him as he moved through his company like a whirlwind shaking everyone up. Their job was to restore the shattered egos and damaged souls Kerzner left in his wake.

President Mandela made the time to lead us so successfully because he left the daily running of the cabinet and government in the hands of his deputies, De Klerk and Mbeki. They had the management and implementation skills to complement his leadership genius. I wonder how much more effective Mbeki might have been later as president, had he been accompanied by a trusted lieutenant with an instinct for reading the mood of the people and relating comfortably with us.

President Ramaphosa has a wonderful talent for listening and incorporating diverse and even contradictory views. He can steer turbulent groups towards consensus around a plan. It’s unusual to have someone with that as his prime ability at the head of a country or organisation, but it could be very effective – if he had a deputy who could ignore other opinions and push through the implementation of that plan with vigour and unrelenting

Could Paul Mashatile do that job as deputy president? Well, that introduces a key factor affecting the success of such a two-some – they have to trust each other. That’s not so easy in politics, where the number Two is likely to be eyeing and agitating behind the scenes for Number One’s job.

But trust is a far more important factor in both business and political success than just the role it plays in leadership complementarity. Trustworthiness is required for any organisation to achieve its purpose. Just look around you for evidence. In South Africa, we lack electricity and a functioning rail network because people could not be trusted to put their responsibilities above personal gain. Basic services collapse because we can’t trust the officials to use our taxes for what they are intended. Coalitions fail to deliver because politicians focus on positions rather than delivery, stabbing each other in the back at the slightest hint of advantage. Who taught them ethics? Where is their social conscience?

The more I learn about management, the more I notice how important trust is. Individuals may be productive while being untrustworthy, but an organisation or a country will not deliver its mandate if it is not led by trustworthy people.

Without the assumption that our leaders in business and politics are reasonably trustworthy we stop doing our best for the collective and focus only on what benefits ourselves. Even worse, the assumption gains ground that we are not even expected to give our best for the welfare of all. We could interpret the current national malaise as a breakdown in trust. We no longer trust those in positions of authority, and our falling expectations become a self-
fulfilling prophecy. Have we given up?

I still believe that the majority of people are basically decent, caring and mostly honest citizens. Where this is affirmed, the quality of service we receive is overwhelmingly wonderful. That should be the norm and we shouldn’t settle for less in ourselves or others.

If I had a second shot at my MBA teaching career I would emphasise, even more than I did, the imperative to be trustworthy. The question is not whether or not trust contributes to the bottom line; it’s whether we do all those things required for healthy profitability in a way that creates trust. Because without trustworthiness, the rest is wasted or worse. And it begins with me.

This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 31 January 2023 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2023-01-31-jonathan-cook-without-trust-the-nation-falls-apart/)

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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