A generation ago, my playing weight as a defensive end at Brigham Young University was 265 pounds. But size is relative. In my junior season, our team descended on Austin, Texas, to play the mighty Longhorns. As we took the field for the first defensive series, I approached the line of scrimmage with the nervous tension that only a lineman understands before the first raw-boned collision.
Standing in the middle of the crowned gridiron, I watched the offensive huddle break. As the red-on-white players fanned into formation, my eyes culled from the pack the imposing outline of my personal opponent. Here came the strong side tackle. Six feet eight inches tall. Not a biscuit under 360 pounds. My eyes widened. A smile spread across my face and then came a muffled laugh. Only because I didn’t want to cry in public. “I need to call a timeout,” I thought. There must be some rule for this. I’m supposed to be matched up against another player, and what I see in front of me is a parked RV. “Oh well, let’s dance,” I thought. “Here we go.” I crouched into a three-point stance and readied myself for mortal combat.
Fortunately, through the repetitions of summer training camp, my footwork, hip angle, hand placement and speed off the ball had all come together into one fluid and subconscious motion. Muscle memory had taken over. I exploded on the snap, put my palms on the big fella's numbers, kept my head erect and drove with all of the force I could gather. I got low enough to tilt him back on his heels. The ball went weak side on a sweep. As I traversed laterally across the field, I maintained arm separation as I had been taught to do. I accelerated and shed the RV behind me. I arrived late to the scene of the accident and didn’t make the play, but I hadn’t given up ground.
I still remember that totally forgettable play. It was an epiphany. I had held my own against the RV — that much bigger, stronger, better player. I had been coached correctly and I learned the principle, the principle of leverage. It worked. With proper application, I was able to magnify my strength and compensate for less natural endowment. And by the way, we did win the game.
The same principle applies in leadership. Leaders don’t accomplish great things themselves. Even those with great pluck or force of will can’t pull it off. Leverage in leadership is about learning to contribute through others. The illusion is that great leaders accomplish great things. On closer inspection, you will see that leaders prompt and facilitate great things. They do it through the enormous power of the off-balance sheet asset we call trust.
As a young manager, I would often look at my team to gauge potential. What was I looking for — energy, enthusiasm, a willingness to embrace new ideas, a good attitude, high engagement? I would try to measure the stock of residual goodwill. I would assess the capacity and capability of the people. It wasn’t wrong. It was just out of order. I missed the first, crucial step. What I needed to do was look in the mirror. I needed to ask the indispensable question: “Do people trust me?” I have learned that much depends on the answer to that question.
Trust is social capital. It’s soft currency. Who holds it? The employees do. They guard it with sophisticated personal surveillance systems. Trusted leaders have security clearance. Distrusted leaders are barred entry. The trusted leader has leverage. The distrusted leader doesn’t.
Isn’t it interesting that leaders can’t anoint themselves with trustworthiness any more than they can decree trust in their organizations? This sort of capital has to be earned. My sense is that in the digital age, society has begun to put a premium on leaders that are seen as trustworthy because they have the ultimate leverage and competitive advantage. Why? Because we’ve become so interdependent. As Eric Schmidt, the former executive chairman of Google, observed, “In a networked world, trust is the most important currency.”
Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark Partners, a management consulting and training organization. He earned a doctorate from Oxford University and is the best-selling author of "Epic Change" and "The Leadership Test." E-mail: [email protected]