Everyday Matters: Leadership and the question of trust



-A +A

TRUST — a fragile word that is finding increasing currency in our beloved nation as we battle to hold our own in international business, local politics and regional athletics. We spotlight the word now because the notional definition and meaning is increasingly harder to find.

If you visit the ancient ruins of the world, especially the magnificent Roman ruins in Capernaum, you will notice that many parts of the structures have crumbled, but the pillars still stand. They were made strong, solid and lasting.

This is because they needed to hold the ancient structures up. They were the elements in the original design that had to withstand turbulence and tremors. In the modern world, with our myriad transactions and questionable dealings — political, commercial and social — trust is such a pillar.

But what exactly is trust?

Trust is a confident belief in someone or something. It is a confident belief in an entity to do what is right; to deliver what is promised; and to be the same every time, whatever the circumstances.

Trust is the result of thousands of small actions, words, thoughts and intentions. It does not happen by accident, nor does it happen all at once. Gaining trust is hard work. It is not slick PR exercises that have no content, or stump speeches filled with hollow messages —  it is our actions. Being clean is not enough; we must be seen to be clean! Knowing that we need it isn’t enough; you and I have to do the little things on a daily basis to earn trust.

You see, trust implies being reliable, dependable and capable. We are trusted to the degree that people believe in our ability, our consistency, our integrity and our commitment to deliver.

Do people believe in you? To the degree that they do, you are trusted.

We live in a world that is unfortunately suffering from a trust crisis. As early as 2009, at the World Economic Forum in China, global leaders got it right when they declared that the modern world’s biggest crisis is a lack of confidence and trust.

Yet some of our local captains play free and easy with that one element that can determine the extent of their legacies. And rightfully, I worry for the nation.

Since the Naughty Noughties, when top corporations and politicians worldwide began to manipulate it with random disconcern, trust — or the lack of it —  has found its way into the public limelight. We have had to deal with corporate frauds, political shenanigans and athletic cheats almost on a daily basis. Many of us have come to lament, “What has happened to good old-fashioned values?”

And what of the economic impact of a lack of trust? The global financial crisis of 2008 is a case in point. The investment banking giants that were Bear Stearns, AIG and Lehman Brothers were at one time considered trust-based businesses. Each of them relied on the trust of the market to establish their value. As trust goes down, value goes down.

For instance, the US$236 million proposal to purchase Bear Stearns by JP Morgan Chase came just hours after the former’s market capitalisation was at US$3 billion in 2008. Interestingly, just over a year before that, Bear Stern’s market capitalisation was US$20 billion!

What happens when a business gains the trust edge? Every aspect of the business will become profitable: customers will pay more, tell others and come back. With suppliers whom you trust, one call is enough. Delivery time and costs decrease because there is less double-checking, paperwork and follow-up. Without trust, there can be no economic activity.

Meanwhile, as columnist Thomas Friedman predicted a decade ago, the world is “flattening” in many respects. Cultures are meeting and expanding in ways that were not possible even a decade ago.

But globalisation is not a free ride. The mega mergers and open markets have aroused new suspicions and misunderstandings. We can reach across borders, but we don’t know how to be trusted by the people we find on the other side. In the 21st century, trust has become one of the world’s most precious resources.

Closer to home, one cannot escape the issue that is 1MDB. The perception that billion-dollar decisions affecting the nation were made almost unilaterally smacks of deceit and a misuse of trust.

We, the citizens, deserve to know what went down. As we continually lament, people in positions of responsibility must not only be clean, but must also be seen to be clean. That, in a nutshell, is what a trust deficit is all about.

Can accumulating trust be taught?  Of course! I believe trust is tangible, learnable and measurable. We teach our children to say “thank you” and “please”, hoping that someday, those words will come out of a thankful and kind heart, though we know children simply do it at first because we ask them to.

Even if we start building the trust pillars because we “are asked to”, my hope is that this foundation of trust will become part of who we are. Then, by earning the trust of others, we will gain a significant advantage that extends far beyond the bottom line.

Malaysia’s ancient, lush and beautiful rainforests took many years to deepen roots, grow branches and flourish. And yet, one poor decision to fell timber without due regard to forest sustainability can take it all down in a fraction of the time they took to mature.

Trust is like that. While it may appear to be static, in reality, trust is more like a forest — a long time growing, but easily destroyed with a touch of carelessness. Trust requires time, effort, diligence and character.

Inspiring trust, dear readers, is not slick or easy to fake. It is a lesson best learnt early.

Zakie Shariff is CEO of a state-owned GLIC and co-founder of hCap Associates, a talent search company

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 15 - 21, 2015.