Trust is a slippery concept, difficult to earn, and maddeningly elusive to define. But speaking plainly, nothing much happens without it. From leading soldiers into war to leading a team in your enterprise, people won’t follow a leader they don’t trust—at least, not for long. Why do some leaders inspire such trust that people follow them through good times and bad, while others can’t even inspire a baseline of trust required to prevent constant turnover? The answer, according to social psychologists, is multifaceted—and confusing. Trust is both an emotional and a logical act, consisting of conscious and unconscious observations and our reaction to this data. The good news? Science believes many of these data points are quantifiable—and learnable—for leaders who want to improve their effectiveness.
One key element in building trust is predictability. Where can today’s leaders look for a good role model on leadership predictability? The answer might surprise you.
Known as one of the most successful military leaders in U.S. history, Ulysses S. Grant is best known as the general who led the Union to victory over the Confederate States during the Civil War. Nicknamed “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” he was the only general during the Civil War who received the surrender of three Confederate armies. Quiet, famously devoid of charisma, small-framed to the point of being slight, and often rumpled, Grant nonetheless inspired thousands of men to fight impossible odds.
What Grant lacked in charisma, he made up for in steadiness. “His face has three expressions,” Theodore Lyman, an officer who served under Grant observed, “deep thought, extreme determination and great calmness.” Known to his men as an unflappable force, Grant remained calm, even in the face of defeat. He fought under the same deprivations and hardships as those he commanded, endured the same risks he asked them to undertake, and never deviated from the established plan of forward momentum, no matter what happened. Colonel James Rusling described Grant as a man who would “dare great things, hold on mightily, and toil terribly” to see a plan to fruition.
All of that could have changed on May 5, 1864, when Grant’s Fifth Corps encountered Lee’s Confederate troops on the Orange Turnpike in Virginia, and the Battle of the Wilderness began in earnest. Artillery and gunfire ignited the dry underbrush, and soldiers were soon firing blindly into the fire and smoke. Wounded soldiers, unable to escape the forest, died in the flames. Throughout the day, Grant kept his calm as his corps commanders sent conflicting reports about General Lee’s movements and news of their mounting and horrific losses. When the day’s battle was finally over, Grant received the casualty report. He had lost more than 17,500 men. Quietly, he retired to the privacy of his tent, then wept in earnest. Hearing their general grieve, some of his closest staff wondered what the next day would bring. But Grant was up before dawn, calm, steady and determined as ever to stay the course. “If you see the President,” he told a reporter during battle that next afternoon, “tell him from me that whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”
Grant’s consistent leadership, even in the face of an increasingly inconsistent environment, endeared him to his soldiers. His steady, unwavering approach provided the predictable leadership necessary to engender trust among his men. No matter what happened, his troops knew he’d stay the course. We, as leaders, can learn a lot from Grant’s example. Today’s employees want leaders they can count on. Providing consistent, predictable leadership—in a world that is becoming increasingly chaotic and dishonest—creates a safe space where employees can thrive and work to their highest potential. Consistency is key!
Are you wondering how to engender trust from those you lead? Let us help. Our unique approach to leadership training harnesses the power of experiential learning to teach time-proven leadership methods that get results. Let us share more leadership lessons from Ulysses S. Grant and other trustworthy leaders in a workshop or staff retreat. You bring the team members, and we’ll create an immersive learning program, linking timeless historical examples with your individual workplace issues.
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Ulysses S. Grant understood that engendering trust is essential to effective leadership. Do you believe your organization is effective in this area? What are some things you’d like to change, or ideas you’d like to try? Please share your ideas and comments, below.