Leadership: Trust and Trees

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The Burlington Industries building used to stand on a large plot of ground near where I lived in Greensboro, NC. The campus was adorned with wonderful oak trees whose thick trunks attested to how long they had been there.

But the company came on hard times. First the building was emptied. It sat on the beautiful campus until demolition company explosions brought it down while rattling windows all around and setting the local dogs to barking.

Work crews moved in immediately. They hauled away the remains of the building. They bulldozed the area flat. And, finally, they took the trees.

One day as I drove home, I noticed that it seemed much lighter than usual. Then I realized why. In the place of old oak trees with thick trunks there were only stumps.

While many alumni of Burlington Industries loved the building, it was just an artifact. The trees were living things and when the chain saws took them, the entire area changed.

Leaders build trust slowly, through good times and bad, the way a tree grows. It happens gradually, almost imperceptibly.

But the trust built over years and decades can disappear in an instant. The chainsaws of betrayal or selfishness or greed can destroy what it took ages to grow.

Like trees, the trust your people have in you grows slowly. Despite the common phrase, you don’t build trust at all, you grow it. And you grow it slowly.

Trust grows from kept promises, from actions that demonstrate concern for your people as well as the mission, and from fairness and from consistency.

Like trees, trust is more fragile in the beginning. It takes time for the trunk to grow thick and the roots to go deep so the tree can weather big storms. But even big trees can be brought down, like those wonderful oaks on the Burlington Industries campus in Greensboro. When that happens, everything changes.

Trust is one of the most valuable things you have as a leader. Make the effort and take the time to grow it. Be wary of anything that can bring it down.

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