What's Tony Thinking

So Much Depends on Trust


When I was teaching leadership in seminaries and writing about leadership I described “trust as the currency of leadership.” With trust you can get a lot done together. Without trust it’s very tough to make progress on whatever are the most important challenges facing a congregation or other organization.

If there was a time, and I think there was, that trust was more or less automatically extended to a new leader, we no longer live in that time. Often today it’s the opposite: a new leader is met with suspicion and distrust from the get-go. So job one for a leader is, “building trust.”

The task of trust building, as I saw it, involved three “Cs.” Commitment, competence and character. Commitment means you show up, you do the work. Competence meant you do the work reasonably well. Character meant you go about your work in an ethical way.

All over our society these days, distrust is endemic. It’s the reason it takes so long to actually get anything done. Moreover, distrust sets up a vicious cycle; it is self-reinforcing. Turning this around rests largely, but not solely, on the shoulders of those in leadership. Largely but not solely because good leadership also requires good follower-ship.

Given all this I was very much interested in what the NYT columnist Bret Stephens had to say about trust and the effects of the Trump Presidency. First, Stephens rehearsed some of the greatest fears he and others had about the Trump Presidency at its outset. The worst of them (nuclear war, stock market crash, and end of the rule of law) had not come to pass.

“But the catastrophe of Trump’s presidency,” wrote Stephens, “doesn’t mainly lie in the visible damage it has caused. It’s in the invisible damage. Trump was a corrosive. What he mainly corroded was social trust — the most important element in any successful society.”

Moreover, Trump corroded trust intentionally, willfully and as a strategy for gaining and keeping power.

More from Stephens,

“Trump’s presidency is hardly the sole cause of America’s declining trust in our institutions, which has been going on for a long time. In some ways, his was the culmination of that decline.

“But it’s hard to think of any person in my lifetime who so perfectly epitomizes the politics of distrust, or one who so aggressively promotes it. Trump has taught his opponents not to believe a word he says, his followers not to believe a word anyone else says, and much of the rest of the country to believe nobody and nothing at all.” That about gets it, doesn’t it?

Consider, then, as a follow-on, another essay by Tom Edsall. Edsall writes that in the U.S. today we’ve gone beyond polarization, even beyond tribalism, to a “political sectarianism,” that is putting us all in danger. Edsall draws on the work of a group of scholars who say,

“The severity of political conflict has grown increasingly divorced from the magnitude of policy disagreement,” the authors write, requiring the development of “a superordinate construct, political sectarianism — the tendency to adopt a moralized identification with one political group and against another.”

“Moralized identification” — a fancy term meaning our group are the good people, the other group are bad people.

More: “Political sectarianism,” they argue, “consists of three core ingredients: othering — the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion — the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans; and moralization — the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous. It is the confluence of these ingredients that makes sectarianism so corrosive in the political sphere.”

At this point, some of you may be thinking, enough diagnosis. What is to be done? (Hearing you, Roy Howard). As I often told struggling churches and their leaders, there are no quick fixes, no silver bullets. But here are a couple thoughts.

  1. I think Joe Biden is setting the right tone, that of the statesman and not the partisan politician. He isn’t throwing red meat to his side. He’s trying to build bridges. This will need support. I pray for him daily. I try to speak up for him and the approach he is taking.
  2. I’m trying to avoid what is referred to above as “moralized identification,” that is, easily or casually calling those with whom I disagree terrible or awful people. Or, as a corollary, speaking of those who share my views as “the good people.” Remember what Alexander Solzhenitsyn so memorably  said, “The line between good and evil passes through the heart of each person.” (And not between nations, races, political parties.)
  3. With a nod to my friend, Brad Bagshaw, I say — skepticism good, cynicism not good. Skepticism means checking stuff out, testing veracity. Cynicism is not believing anything or anyone is ever good, decent, admirable or trustworthy.
  4. I am trying to operate with the assumption that both sides (Republicans as well as Democrats) have some good ideas to help us move forward. (Thank you John Rose)
  5. Without sounding like too much of boy scout about all this, each of us has opportunities every day to build or diminish trust. Recognize your opportunities and use them well.

I could go on, but that’s enough from me. I’d love to hear your ideas about what is to be done.





Categories: Uncategorized