Leading with Trust

A Question From Simon Sinek: Are You Playing a Finite or Infinite Game?

In January 1968, the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns in the Vietnam War. In every single battle, the American-led forces and the South Vietnamese Army of the Republic of Vietnam defeated their enemies, leading to heavy casualties for the North. In the ensuing months there were several “Mini Tet” offensives launched, and each one ended the same way—defeat. The North lost over 100,000 soldiers during the January to August time-frame.

In the Vietnam War, the United States won every single battle but lost the war. Why?

North Vietnam was playing the infinite game. Their goal was to outlast the enemy, not defeat them.

Finite games have winners and losers. The rules of the game are known to both sides, the boundaries of the playing field are well-defined, the scoreboard keeps track of the game’s activity, and at the end of a prescribed period of time, a winner is declared. It’s neat. It’s clean. Someone wins, someone loses.

Infinite games have no winners or losers. Rules often don’t exist, and if they do, they are fuzzy and open to interpretation. The playing field is undefined and progress is hard to measure. Opponents change frequently, as does the game itself. There are no clear winners or losers in the infinite game. Competitors drop out of the infinite game when they lose the will or resources to stop playing. The goal is to outlast your competition.

Simon Sinek introduced this concept in his keynote address at our recent Blanchard Summit. In the VUCA  (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world in which we live, the most successful leaders and organization are learning to play the infinite game, not the finite one. The “game” of leadership and business is an infinite game where the rules change frequently, competitors come and go, and there is no end point to the game. You are either ahead or behind. There is no ultimate winner or loser. The infinite game continues indefinitely until someone loses the will or resources to keep playing.

Resources are well understood. Money, intellectual property, people, technology, etc. We have to have the capital we need to run a business. But what about will? Sinek shared five must-have components of will if we are to succeed in the infinite game:

1. Just cause—More than your “why” or purpose, a just cause is what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning. It’s the passion or hunger that burns inside that compels you to do what you do. Your just cause is what powers you to outlast your competitors. It propels you forward in the face of adversity and empowers you to persevere when you feel like giving up.

2. Courageous leadership—Playing the infinite game requires leaders to prioritize the just cause above anything else. They are willing to stand up to the pressures of the Board, Wall Street, or popular sentiment, and stay true to their cause. This struggle is often too great for a single person to tackle alone, so it requires all the leaders of the organization to band together and act in alignment.

3. Vulnerable team—Sinek says being a vulnerable team doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for everyone to walk around crying. It means you’ve invested the time and energy to build a culture in your organization where people feel safe to be themselves. They can admit they don’t know something or that they made a mistake. They can take appropriate risks without fear of retribution or retaliation. If you’re people don’t feel safe, that is your fault, not theirs.

4. Worthy adversary—In the infinite game, adversaries are acknowledged and treated with respect, but our success or failure isn’t measured against them. Ultimately we are competing against ourselves, and our success or failure should be measured against our just cause. Our adversaries may push us to improve our products, services, marketing, etc., but in the infinite game we are constantly striving to become a better version of ourselves in order to fulfill our just cause.

5. Open playbook—Too many organizations pursue a variable cause with a fixed strategy, Sinek theorizes, rather than pursuing a fixed cause with a variable strategy. Having an open playbook means leaders and organizations are willing to have flexible strategies and plans that change as needed to pursue their just cause. An open playbook also means you are transparent with your strategies, so all members of the team can literally be on the same page. Leaders resist being too transparent with information because they fear losing control. They distrust how people will use that information so they hold it close to the vest. That only results in people making sub-optimal decisions because they don’t know all the plays in the playbook.

You can win every battle but still lose the war. The goal is not to beat your competition; the goal is to outlast them.

So what does it mean to play the infinite game as a leader? It means you leave something behind that outlasts your finite presence or contributions. An infinite leader builds a culture so strong, that when the leader is no longer there, the culture lives on. Infinite leaders commit to their just cause. The work produced by striving for that just cause has the indelible fingerprints of the leader, and lasts far beyond the time of the leader’s tenure.

So ask yourself: Are you playing the finite or infinite game?

Brene Brown’s 4 Pillars of Courageous Leadership

Vulnerability, clarity of values, trust, and rising skills are the four pillars of courageous leadership, according to Brené Brown, author, storyteller, and research professor at the University of Houston. Brené joined us at the Blanchard Summit this past week and shared her latest thinking on what it means for leaders to be courageous and vulnerable.

Brown defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Leaders exhibit courageous leadership when they’re willing to be vulnerable—they’re “all in”—even though it means they may fail or get hurt. Contrary to popular opinion, vulnerable leadership isn’t soft or weak. Brown says vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.

When you choose to engage in courageous leadership, you will have critics and haters. Brown reminded us that being brave with your life is a painful mirror to those around you. “Don’t try to win over the haters,” Brown said, “you aren’t the ‘jackass whisperer.'” She encouraged us to draw a one inch by one inch box on a piece of paper and list the names of the people whose opinions matter to us within that one inch box. It drives home the point about how important it is to be selective about who you allow to speak into your life. Brown punctuated this point by saying she’s adopted the point of view that “If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked occasionally, then I’m not interested in your feedback or criticism.”

Trust is at the heart of true courageous, vulnerable relationship. Many people assume trust “just happens,” but that’s not how trust works in reality. Trust is built through the intentional use of specific behaviors, and you can teach people how to become more trustworthy and better trust builders with others. To effectively build trust in a team or organization, it requires everyone to have a common definition of trust. Download this free whitepaper to learn how having a common language about trust fuels high performance in organizations.

As Brené Brown shared with us, courageous leadership is not comfortable. You will fall and skin your knee. But courage is contagious. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.

6 Ways to Become a Badass Leader

The Most Interesting Man in the WorldI’m a fan of the Dos Equis “The Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials (the original ones, not the cheesy new ones). Some of my favorite sayings about The Most Interesting Man in the World include:

  • His personality is so magnetic, he is unable to carry credit cards.
  • Even his enemies list him as their emergency contact number.
  • People hang on his every word, even the prepositions.
  • He can disarm you with his looks or his hands, either way.
  • He can speak French in Russian.
  • He once taught canaries the art of falconry.

That guy is a real badass, isn’t he? Imagine him in a leadership role…badassery at it’s best! You can be a badass leader too, although it’s probably not what you think.

What does a badass leader look like?

He confidently marches to the beat of his own drum, not swayed by popular opinion or the need to please others. He doesn’t put on airs, pretending to be something he isn’t, but stays true to his principles and values in all that he does. He doesn’t have to talk about being a badass (that’s a poser) because he knows he is a badass. A badass leader isn’t an uncooperative jerk, indiscriminately ticking people off. A badass leader knows his limits and takes pride in working with others to achieve the goals of the team. Understated, purposeful, and pursuing excellence in all he does. That’s a badass.

Examples of well-known badasses:

  • Abraham Lincoln – Presidential Badass
  • Condoleezza Rice – Diplomat Badass
  • Derek Jeter – Baseball Badass
  • Leonardo da Vinci – Renaissance Badass
  • Mother Teresa – Spiritual Badass
  • Albert Einstein – Intellectual Badass
  • Aristotle – Philosophical Badass
  • John Wayne – Western Movie Actor Badass

Get the idea? So how do you become a leadership badass? Here’s six ways:

1. Develop your competence – Competence breeds confidence, no two ways about it. If you want to be more secure in your leadership abilities then you need to keep learning and growing. Read books, take classes, get a mentor, and learn from others. Badass leaders aren’t content with the status quo. They are always striving to improve their craft.

2. Be vulnerable – Huh? Isn’t that the opposite of being a badass? No! Leaders that display vulnerability show they don’t have anything to hide. Posers are those who lead with a false sense of confidence, trying to hide their weaknesses from others. Badass leaders are acutely aware of their strengths and weaknesses and aren’t afraid to admit when they don’t know something. People crave authentic leadership and badasses are nothing if not authentic.

3. Focus on building trust – Trust is the foundation of badassery. You have to earn people’s trust before they will follow you and give their all. Badass leaders focus on building trust by being good at what they do, acting with integrity, caring for others, and following through on their commitments.

4. Build up other people – Badass leaders don’t feel the need to build themselves up by tearing down others. Secure enough in their self-worth, badass leaders take pride in the accomplishments of their team members and do everything they can to set them up for success. Badass leaders know that their success comes from the success of their people.

5. Get stuff done – Badass leaders don’t make excuses, they make things happen. They remove obstacles for their people, find the tools and resources they need, and provide the right amounts of direction and support they need to achieve their goals. Badass leaders are about doing, not talking. Badass leaders get stuff done.

6. Go against the grain – Doing what’s right is not always the popular choice, but badass leaders aren’t afraid to go against the grain when it’s the right thing to do. Badass leaders know they can’t base their self-worth on the applause of others and they aren’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers on occasion.

Every leader has the ability to be a badass. It’s an attitude, a belief, a way of being. Don’t lead scared, letting fear drive your behavior, but tap into your inner badassness and lead with confidence and assurance. Before you know it, people will look at you and say, “Now that’s a badass leader!”

Feel free to leave a comment and share your thoughts on what it means to lead like a badass.

The Most Important Decision Every Leader Must Make

Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Leaders are faced with myriad decisions in any given day, week, month, or year. Questions such as these fill our days: What’s the right strategy for our organization? What are my most important priorities? Who is the right person for this job? How much time do we allocate to this project? How much money should we spend? Some are big, some are small. Some carry great significance; others not so much. Some days there are more decisions to make and others there are less. But one thing is constant: there are always decisions to be made.

I would argue there is one decision more important than any other you face, and the way you respond to that decision will shape the course of all the others you make. What is that decision? It’s the decision to trust.

We all have moments of trust where we can decide to move toward connecting, engaging, and trusting one another. Or we can decide to move away from one another by choosing fear, distrust, self-protection, control, or ego. Since a large degree of leadership is about accomplishing work through others, leaders must trust and depend on people at some point. It’s impossible to do everything on your own, and besides, it’s undemocratic and boring to do it all yourself!

Since trusting others is a requirement of leadership, the question then becomes, How do I know who to trust and how much to trust them?

Deciding Who to Trust

You can gauge a person’s trustworthiness by how their behavior exemplifies the ABCDs of trust.

A is for AbleDemonstrating Competence. People who possess the skills, knowledge, and expertise for their roles earn trust. Able individuals demonstrate their competence by having a track record of success. They consistently achieve their goals and can be counted on to solve problems and make good decisions.

B is BelievableActing with Integrity. Integrity is at the heart of trustworthiness and it’s impossible to be fully trusted without it. High integrity people are honest, tell the truth, admit their mistakes, and act in alignment with their values and those of the organization. They walk the talk.

C is for ConnectedCaring about Others. Trustworthy people value relationships. They care about others and act in ways that nurture those relationships. Connected people establish rapport with others by finding common ground and mutual interests. They share information about themselves and the organization in a transparent fashion, trusting others to use information wisely. Most of all, connected people are others-focused. They place the needs of others ahead of their own.

D is for DependableHonoring Commitments. Fulfilling promises, maintaining reliability, and being accountable are critical aspects of being dependable. Trustworthy individuals do what they say they’re going to do. They don’t shirk their responsibilities or hold themselves to a different (i.e., lower) standard than their teammates.

Deciding How Much to Trust

It’s important to understand you put yourself at risk when you trust another person. You run the risk of that person disappointing you, not following through, or worse case, purposely betraying or taking advantage of you. Your willingness to accept vulnerability is determined by the interplay of several variables including your personality, values, life experiences (especially early childhood), and of course, the situation at hand. Only you can determine how vulnerable you’re willing to be when extending trust.

A helpful way to consider how much to trust someone is to view the situation through what I call The Window of Trust. Based on the person’s trustworthiness (how their behavior demonstrates the ABCDs of trust), and your willingness to be vulnerable (accept risk), you can choose how wide to open your window of trust. The greater a person demonstrates trustworthiness, combined with a greater willingness to be vulnerable on your part, means the more you can open the window of trust.

The goal is not to have a wide-open window of trust for all relationships. The goal is to open it as wide as appropriate for a relationship given its specific context or situation.

All healthy relationships are based on trust. Whether it’s a short-term relationship with a vendor providing you a one-time service, or a lifetime commitment to the person you marry, you must open the window of trust as wide as possible to help the relationship reach its full potential.

4 Ways to Move From Vendor to Partner in Client Relationships

“We’re re-evaluating all of our vendor relationships.” Oomph! It felt like a punch to the gut when our client uttered those words, especially the “v” word. For several years this organization had been one of our top 5 clients, and now this new client contact was replacing our previous partner with whom we had a trusted and successful relationship. He clearly had a new strategy that didn’t involve us and was looking to move his business elsewhere. Despite our best efforts, over the course of the next 18 months our business with this client evaporated.

How did we move so quickly from being viewed as a trusted partner with this client to a vendor who could easily be replaced? It had nothing to do with the quality of our products and services, our price, or our capabilities as an organization. It had everything to do with the level of trust in the relationship with our new client contact.

We had developed an extremely high level of trust with our original sponsor. She viewed us as a trusted advisor who looked out for her best interests. She knew that our primary aim was to help her succeed, not just to sell products and services. We collaborated on projects together, learned from each other, and were vested in creating win-win solutions.

This level of commitment was reflected in the language we used when speaking about each other. She was our client – a person who uses the professional advice of another – and we were her partner – a person in a relationship where each has equal status. Our new client contact clearly viewed us as a vendor– a person who sells something.

So how you do create a relationship with your clients that transforms them from thinking of you as a vendor to one of a partner? I believe you have to build a solid foundation of trust and you do that by being:

  • Able – Competence in your role is a prerequisite for building trust with clients. Do you know the details of your products and services inside and out? Do you know the business challenges your client faces and how your organization can help them be more successful? Clients value and trust the advice of competent professionals who have a track record of success and have taken the time to thoroughly understand their needs.
  • Believable – Are you a person of integrity? Do you admit mistakes and take ownership, or do you make excuses and shift blame? Clients want partners that act ethically, responsibly, and place their needs ahead of your own. Sometimes being a person of integrity means telling the client “no.” Trusted partners are willing to be honest with their clients and advise them when they can’t provide the best solution the client needs. Trusted partners look for creative ways to help the client address their issues and find solutions to problems that may or may not involve their own products and services.
  • Connected – No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care. You can be the most competent professional around, but if you don’t establish a personal connection with your clients, your efforts at building trust will be limited. Trusted partners know their clients as people, not just business associates. Get to know your clients by being genuine, authentic, and demonstrating care and concern.
  • Dependable – Simply following through on your commitments to clients goes a long way in building a trusted partnership. Maintaining reliability with clients involves having an organized approach to your work, only making promises you can keep, and doing what you say you will do. One of the quickest ways to erode trust with clients is to over-promise and under-deliver.

Trust is the key ingredient that allows you to move your client relationships from one of being a vendor to that of a trusted partner, and it starts with learning the ABCD’s of trust: Able, Believable, Connected, and Dependable.

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