Put the Pen Down: 5 Steps to Building Trust


I have the privilege and honor to spend time with leaders from all walks of life and I’ve noticed a dangerous trend in new leaders or leaders that are trying to move faster than their team.  I’ve watched as they disguise brainstorming sessions at the whiteboard as a chance to make their points known while providing little to no actual collaboration or brainstorming.  They stand with pen in hand and serve to lecture their team on the merits of their thinking.  Justifying their ideas and the direction they are headed as “they” solve the problem and map out the future.  It always reminds me of Simon Sinek’s point when he says “It is a mistake when a leader walks into a room and says, “We have a problem and I think this is how we should solve it.  What do you think?”  The leader has squelched the feedback from the team at that moment and is not likely to receive the honest input needed to solve the problem.  It could be worse than that.  They have started on a path to eroding trust.

No leader wants to breakdown trust within their team.  In fact, “Trust” and “Integrity” are probably written somewhere in the organization’s value statement.  But it can happen quickly and result in this unintended consequence.

So, how do you build trust in these moments?

Good leaders hire great people, equip them for the role, empower them to have influence and then take one step back.  Allow them to have influence.  After all, that’s what ignites their engagement and creativity?  They draw satisfaction from having a real impact on an organization.  Build that.  Stoke that fire.  Unleash the team’s diversity, intellect, and experience to do more than a single person with a good idea. 

Here’s how:

1.    Put the pen down – Hand somebody else the whiteboard marker and allow them to lead the discussion.  It will give you a better vantage point as you see ideas coming together.  You will find your questions and contributions become far more insightful.


2.    Speak last – Find pleasure in taking in the conversation.  Let the conversation fully develop before you jump in with questions or comments of your own.  This will give your team the understanding they are in control of the discussion.  It will also fuel your creativity as you begin to bring ideas together.


3.    Ask questions that challenge and advances the discussion – Be careful not to dismiss ideas, but to challenge thoughts with questions that ask them to dig deeper.  This will develop ideas past the shallow point of inception and into the deep waters of a fully thought out plan.  After all, no idea should be labeled a “good idea” until it has been challenged.


4.    Affirm ideas and the dialogue – Always affirming and forward moving.  Bad ideas will come out in the wash.  They do not need to be shot down.  You want to make sure you are creating a psychologically safe environment where people feel comfortable to share.


5.    Focus on meeting the team’s needs – A major part of a leader’s role is to remove barriers to their team’s success.  Focus on what the team needs from you in order to be successful.  Sometimes it is idea generation.  Other times it may be helping them navigate political environments or budgetary issues.  The key is to be open to serving your team and not them serving you.

Leaders, your idea might be the best idea.  Perhaps it is 10 percent better than any other idea presented (this time). You must ask yourself, “Is it worth it?”  Will you have marginalized or silenced the team?  Group dynamics theory speaks to creating a psychologically safe environment, where team members feel free to offer ideas.  This safety creates a comfortable exchange of ideas that may or may not make a difference in the decision, but it makes all the difference in your organizational culture.

Trust is critical and your team needs to know you value their contribution.  Focus on the five steps listed here and watch the energy level change. 

Diversity, Diversity, Diversity

Diversity pic.jpg

I’m a big fan…The idea of surrounding yourself, a team, or an organization with a group of people that bring unique perspectives is awesome.  The masterpiece created when painting with different colors, using different brush strokes, employing different textures, and using various techniques leads to amazing results.  People coming together with their differences can create masterpieces.

Diversity comes in a variety of traits.  Don’t get caught up on one definition or example of diversity that puts you in a box.  You must embrace it in all of its forms.  For example, diversity includes; race, cultures, socioeconomic status, education methods (notice I didn’t leave it at “education”), experiences, and generational spread.  Building teams of all types are essential. 

With diversity comes opinions…assumptions…biases.  Those suppositions are what we bring to the team.  It is when those biases and thoughts evolve through safe and respectful dialogue that minds change, and the organization benefits.  As a leader, I too come to meetings with opinions, assumptions, and biases.  I prejudge a situation or carve out a path in my mind.  We all do it.  After all, that is part of my slice of diversity and what I bring.  What happens in that meeting is a challenge for me as a leader.  I know we are ‘on to something good’ when my thinking shifts.  It is at that moment I know the product or process just got better.  Somebody convinced me, the leader, there was a better way.  It can’t be easy to do, so their idea must have been better than mine.  Let that sink in.  Embrace it.  If you have assembled and empowered a high caliber and diverse team, you will (and should) frequently find yourself in a position to acquiesce to the ideas of the group.

This is why a diverse team and collaboration are so important.  Having a genuinely empowered group of individuals around a table is critical.  The key might be in the term “genuinely empowered.”  It is a cultural thing, and it must be in place.  Simon Sinek wrote, “The worse thing a leader could do is say to his team, ‘Here is the problem and I think we should do this.  What do you think?’”.  Leaders who prescribe a solution before allowing the diversity of their team to speak into it will squelch the voice of the team and diminish their value.  Those teams will never rise and influence the outcome.  They will never change the mind of the leader.  Good ideas will go unspoken as the team submits to the opinions, assumptions, and biases of the leader. 

When we create diverse teams without the willingness to let diversity run, we miss out on the benefits.  Diversity without a culture of safe, honest, and open-handed leaders is likely to be more “window dressing” than anything else.  We will have taken great efforts to assemble a team only to frustrate and demoralize the members, and the team will fail to reach its potential.

Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people, so they can tell us what to do.”  There are some nuances with this statement, but I can get behind it.  After all, smart people alone is not diversity.  You need intelligent people with experience(s).  Assuming that is what you have, it is time to empower them to change you.  Leaders continue to lead.  Continue to bring your experiences, assumptions, opinions, and biases.  But, be willing to listen to the voices around the table.  Be ready to let your team shine.

Hire great people, equip them to succeed, empower them to have influence, and then step back…That’s a diversity recipe that works.

Heavy is the Head


I cannot get the letter “P” out of my mind.  It has been bouncing around for months, and it continues to expand.  More specifically, the letter “P” has formed an alliteration associated with words that describe my thinking about leadership.  I have tried to figure out where it came from and for a time I thought it might have been tied to my mother’s reminder to “watch my ‘Ps’ and ‘Qs’” when in public.

But that is not it…It is more specific than that.  Perhaps my mind is drawn to the art of alliteration, and I am stuck on words with the letter P.  While “Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Pepper” has a ring to it, my words are different.  The more I search, the more I find significance in the words and their tie to leadership. 

The first word is Privilege

Leaders have privilege.  It is not that they should be treated with higher privilege.  They have a privileged perspective on what is going on around them.  They have a vantage point that provides a better view of the action.  Consider the Captain of a ship.  They sit on the Bridge and survey they horizon as they guide the ship through the sea.  The CEO receives financial, operational, and competitive updates as they work through the strategy and execution of the business plan.  The shop foreman works hand-in-hand with their team as they make process improvements on a daily basis.  It is not difficult to understand how a person in leadership has a unique and privileged perspective on what is happening around them. 

Privilege in this context is easy to understand.  However, that is not the “privilege” that comes to mind when I think about leadership.  Leaders have the unique privilege to influence the behaviors and actions of other people.  We all have it, but do we appreciate what that means?  Whether you are leading a church, a brigade, a workforce, or your children, having the ability to influence another’s actions is an incredible privilege.  Embracing that privilege will change the way you lead.

The second word is Pleasure

Authentic leadership should be accompanied by a sense of pleasure: the pleasure to work with others in a way that adds value to them, to the organization, and the greater mission.  Good leaders tend to associate the privilege to work with others with a sense of joy.  My mentor, Tom Kemp, used to describe the way he would wake up excited to go into the office.  He would specifically tie that excitement to the opportunity to add value to his team as they worked towards a common goal.

The pleasure and joy described here come from a place of true humility.  A place where those you lead are the highest priority, even higher priority than the mission itself.  An understanding that your ability to add value to them will ultimately make EVERYTHING and EVERYONE better.  It is in that place of humility and submission to others where leaders find pleasure.

The third word is Perseverance

Shakespeare said, “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”  You may have heard it said, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”  Leadership is not easy, and it rarely allows for the 9 to 5 workday.  Leaders know the stakes, and the “buck stops with them.”  They carry the burden of making their team and the organization successful.  It keeps them up at night and can consume a lot of energy and even passion.  There is no getting around the mental and emotional challenges that come with leadership.  After all, it is a tremendous responsibility to influence another person’s actions. 

This doesn’t discourage leaders. Leaders are fueled by the times where perseverance is needed  Adding value to another person’s professional and personal life is the reward that trumps the weight of the crown.

The last P is for Preference

Leaders prefer to wear the heavy crown, to stand in the gap where the buck stops, and to play their role in developing others.  They are happy to stay out of the light so the light can shine brightly on their team.  The mere reflection of that light is plenty for them.  It is their appreciation of the real meaning of privilege and the pleasure derived from developing others that stirs their sense of preference. 

John Maxwell wrote, “Leadership is not a position, it is a state of mind.”  My challenge as a leader is to maintain a state of mind that embodies the four Ps.  My challenge to you is to recognize your true Privilege.  Take Pleasure and find joy in the opportunity to add value to another’s life.  Dig in and Persevere when things are tough.  Finally, wake up every day with a Preference to be there.