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Holding on to trust

Holding on to trust

I was reminded while reading Michael Higgins and Kevin Burns’ excellent biography of Henri Nouwen, “Genius Born of Anguish,” of how much Nouwen loved the circus -- in particular, the trapeze troupe the Flying Rodleighs.

In their daring performances, Nouwen saw a reflection of the Christian spiritual life -- a necessary pattern of letting go, of gliding through the uncertainty of the air, only to be caught by a caring and waiting partner.

Nouwen loved it when one of the Rodleighs explained to him that the flyer can do nothing but trust that the catcher will catch him. If the flyer tries to catch the catcher, they both could be seriously injured. But if the flyer simply extends his arms and waits to be caught, then his partner will catch him and bring him safely to the platform.

Is it any wonder that Nouwen would see the entirety of the Christian life in a performance of the Flying Rodleighs? Is it any wonder that Nouwen would explore this metaphor so richly and repeatedly?

Indeed, the metaphor is also a fairly good one for leadership, as so much of leading is the work of inviting people to let go of what they know and to risk ambiguity and uncertainty, in the belief that there is something good waiting for them.

That’s what it means to lead visioning and planning processes: “With where you’ve been, now is the time to let go of what is comfortable. Leap into the future and imagine where God is calling us.”

That’s what it means to supervise and support the development of staff: “This is an opportunity for you to build on what you know and what you’ve done; this is a chance for you to grow. It will be unclear. It may be painful. But in the end, it will be good.”

That’s what it means to enter into seasons of change or innovation or to endure seasons of conflict within our institutions: “What has been is no longer possible; what will be is not yet clear. But we are confident that it will be better. So let’s move forward.”

If much of the work of leadership is extending these kinds of invitations, then this underscores the importance of trust between the leader and those she or he serves.

It is little surprise that studies have correlated high levels of trust within organizations with increased organizational performance. Likewise, these same studies have correlated low levels of trust with poor performance. (Because these studies have principally examined for-profit companies, they have evaluated performance in terms of efficiency and bottom-line profit, but one can imagine the corollaries in nonprofit and faith-based organizations.)

What leads someone to trust? Or, to ask it differently, why would anyone follow the leader?

There has been much research examining the foundations of trust in interpersonal and professional relationships, resulting in an expansive and sometimes conflicting literature. While researchers use different terms to describe factors that lead to trust, there are four elements that appear fairly consistently: competence, benevolence, transparency and reliability.

First, we put our trust in people we perceive to be competent and capable. We trust those who have the knowledge and the skills to get the work done.

Second, we trust people we see as having our best interest at heart, those who demonstrate a consistent concern for our well-being. We trust people who treat us as individuals -- not as replaceable parts in a machine or “just a volunteer” or “part of the staff.”

Third, we trust those we perceive to be open and transparent, interpreting these qualities as signs of character and integrity. We believe in people who behave as if they have nothing to hide.

Finally, we trust those we see as reliable in their performance and predictable in their behavior. We trust the people we can count on regardless of the circumstances.

None of these four elements is much of a surprise. If we think about the times when we have invited others to take a leap of faith and they have said yes, my hunch is that our relationships with them were marked by these four things. So when we have invited them to let go and enter the ambiguity, they have trusted us that something better was waiting to catch them.

In these occasions of trust, there is one further element that is worthy of note. The trust that others placed in us was most likely neither spontaneous nor instantaneous but cultivated slowly. It was the accumulated result of scores of daily encounters and shared moments. It was forged by a tested and enduring fidelity.

We no longer live in a culture in which trust is granted ex officio, if ever we did. A 2014 Gallup poll puts public trust in clergy at a four-decade low.

For those of us who lead in Christian institutions, nurturing trust is now more than ever an indispensable element of our work. It is vital for our leadership and for the future of our institutions. Even more, it is vital for our witness in the world.

Courtesy Faith & Leadership The opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Florida Conference. Photo courtesy Bigstock.