People often confuse transformational leadership with inspirational leadership. To be great leaders, the thinking goes, we must inspire, encourage, and define new futures for our organizations. The dominant thinking says that leadership must be about the future, articulating it powerfully and motivating others to act on that vision. Transformational leadership is, after all, about transforming where we are to get to something better.

This thinking leaves out a critical element of leadership and prevents us as leaders from honoring what I consider to be the single most important skill leaders need: overcoming failures.

The Past Is Equally Important

What we as leaders often overlook are those times our organizations have not lived up to expectations, and, most importantly, when we as leaders have stumbled. Conversations about failures are often done behind closed doors in one-on-one performance evaluations. Transformational leadership, however, is as much about the past as it is about the future.

When we publically hold back on the things that have not gone well, we have an insufficient level of trust with the people we are trying to enroll into what could go well.

In working on large-scale change initiatives, I frequently come across a concern from leaders that the latest effort will only be seen as the ‘flavor of the day’. Unfortunately, these fears are often valid as many organizations do indeed fail to see the compelling message in change initiatives or simply discount an effort as no more likely to succeed than previous efforts. Trust in the initiative and trust in the leader are often missing.

How to Build Trust

The need to be respected by our peers is universal, and people expend great effort ensuring they deliver on their promises. We want to say and do the right things at all times; anything less is shameful. Unfortunately, this endeavor is doomed to fail. It requires we maintain an unrealistic image with those we work with. Perfection is simply not possible.

It is when others experience the real person inside the leader that connection and enrollment become possible. When a leader is able to account for those efforts that did not turn out, those visions that were unfounded, or those bold moves that should not have been made do people see start actually listening. Trust is what happens when people connect with that real person.

Building trust requires accounting for the past. Consider:

  • Where can I take responsibility for what did not turn out?
  • Where could I have better dealt with past work?
  • What am I doing differently going forward based on what I have learned?

It’s not enough to know the answers to these questions. The difference is made, and trust is built, when we can share them with whom we work.

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