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First Trust. Then Ethos.

First Trust. Then Ethos.

The challenges facing leaders today are bigger, more complex and coming faster than ever before, with the volume of decisions needing to be made feeling like they are growing exponentially.  In this environment, unleashing a committed effort from every team member is no longer ‘nice to have’, it’s mission critical.

Think of it as an hourglass, with every grain of sand being a challenge to address or a decision to be made.  If you as the leader have to consider each of them alone, you are the crimp in the middle.  At best, you are slowing performance, at worst, guaranteeing failure. The need to fully engage, grow and empower your culture has never been more important.  The question is how? 

Culture and leadership are often called soft skills. In my experience, they are anything but soft. For most organizations, creating and sustaining a high performing culture today is really hard! And if one thing is clear from the science, research, and data of the last few years, long-term high performance is a direct result of culture, which is hugely influenced by (YOUR) leadership. As Forrest Gump would say, ‘they go together like peas and carrots’.  

If you as a leader, don’t like the culture, look in the mirror, you might have some work to do! So where to begin? I would suggest that you start by making things simpler! You heard me right, deal with the complex world by making your culture, less so.

First Trust.  Start by making people feel psychologically ‘safe’. You need their talent, ideas and collaboration to achieve success.  You aren’t going to get that if they don’t feel safe. Make them feel like it is okay to offer suggestions, bring up difficult conversations, and even to make mistakes as part of learning.  Make them feel like they belong, and where they are willing to make themselves vulnerable in the interest of the team and organization. 

Then Ethos. Once your team trusts you and each other, create crystal clarity and consistency around your Purpose and Values. Your purpose is WHY you exist as an organization. Your values can be your HOW: How you interact, execute and make decisions. When lived, discussed, expected and celebrated daily, they become your Ethos.

Structure. Once you have woven Trust and Ethos into the daily fabric of your organization, teams are much more willing (even eager) to take on responsibility, address challenges and accomplish objectives.  This will allow you to look at structure (your goals, roles, practices and expectations) with a lens for taking the complexity out.  Reducing the number of policies, procedures and guidelines to the bare minimum ‘guardrails’ required to execute.  

Now you can incorporate a leadership model based on “Leaders Intent”, simply communicating: 

The objective. 

 A clear description of the desired end-state, and

 Why it is important (tying it back to Purpose and Values).  

Notice there is nothing in the leader’s intent that involves telling people how to do their jobs. This is a culture where team members are executing based on a clear understanding of what you expect of them, where they understand and have fully embodied your Ethos and do their jobs instinctually.

In a culture based on Trust and Ethos, all things become possible. Without them, you will expend more and more effort to mandate, regulate and coerce inconsistent, sporadic and likely unsatisfying performance. Where the best outcome you can typically hope for is minimal compliance.

In a conversation several years ago with All American Leadership teammate and retired U.S. Navy SEAL Captain, Bob Schoultz (former Commander of Naval Special Warfare Group Two in Virginia, and later Director of Leader and Character Development at the United States Naval Academy), he made a comment that continues to resonate and rattle around in my head: “Organizations that talk about leadership, tend to have better leadership, and organizations that talk about culture, tend to have better cultures.”

And as another friend, AAL teammate, and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Kevin Basik, PhD (former Chief of National Leadership Training for Air Force ROTC, and Assistant Director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy) likes to say: “As a leader, you need to be crystal clear on what you stand for, what you stand against, and who you stand with.”


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Posted: May 30, 2019,
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