“I trust you.”

I’ve served in a new leadership role for almost a year now, and I can still recall one of the earliest bits of affirmation that I received.

During a call with one of my subordinates which touched on a somewhat sensitive issue, uncertain what kind of response I would receive, I was given these words from the other end of the telephone: “I trust you.”

Without yet much history in my leadership position, without much relational foundation bonding us together, a simple affirmation was made. I trust you.

I trust that you will handle things sensitively, that you have my and my team’s concerns in mind, that you will endeavor to do the best you can in handling this information.

I can hardly imagine more encouraging, affirming, or empowering words that a follower could offer to his or her leader. There is an immense freedom to be found in these words, if they are given and received in authenticity.

“I trust you” frees me to be me–it’s me, my character, that is the object of that trust, and so the best I can do is to be myself, in integrity and authenticity, as I navigate the situation at hand. And what more could I hope for but to be freed from trying to play political games of people-pleasing and second-guessing my words and choices?

But these words are not just for followers to speak to their leaders. They provide the same encouragement, affirmation, and empowerment when a leader speaks them to, and on behalf of, a follower.

Over the last 12 months, I have realized that part of my leadership function–part of the value and stewardship that I can offer in the context of my role–is to be supportive and affirming of my subordinates in the context of enhancing their interaction with their subordinates. As a leader of leaders, I see that I can work to sponsor, endorse, and promote the leadership of my followers.

By voicing my approval and appreciation, a transfer of trust can take place, where my follower’s followers feel emboldened and confident to place their trust in their leader, someone who is in turn trusted by his/her leader (me). At the same time, I hope that my words provide encouragement and freedom for my followers to lead from who they are, assured of their relationship with me and freed in their relationships with their own followers.

In my book, Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture, I see relationship as the foundation of the leader-follower dynamic. And one of the key components of relationship is trust. Not only do I give Chapter 15 to the topic “Communication and Trust”, but a scan of the index shows page references from beginning to end which continue to enforce the centrality of trust to excellent followership (and leadership).

So when my subordinate offered those powerful words to me early in my leadership–“I trust you”–I learned then that a significant part of my role would be to validate that trust as being well-placed in me, and also to encourage the establishment of other trust-based relationships within my sphere of influence.

I could hardly wish for anything more than for all of us–myself, my subordinates, and their subordinates–to be encouraged and empowered by the freedom to be found in trust-based cooperative relationship.

Excellent followership and excellent leadership form around shared purpose and goals, but the relationship is nurtured and maintained through the offer and establishment of trust.


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