Leadership and Trust – A Cautionary Tale

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I once worked for a TV station where senior management wanted to get rid of one of the news anchors. Because of the stipulations of her contract, they couldn’t just fire her outright. So they came up with a plan. Their plan was to make her so miserable that she would feel compelled to quit.

Now, how could I possibly know about this? At the time, I was just a glorified secretary (and by “glorified” I mean “not glorified”).

I know about this because, late one night at the office, the senior executive who came up with the plan (the news director) wrote it up in a little memo, complete with snarky comments about the anchor and details about how management could make her life miserable. He then made a single copy of this memo to give to the general manager. Only one problem. He left the original in the copier.


When I got in to work the next morning, there were copies of this memo taped EVERYWHERE! Everybody in the station knew about the plan, from middle management to glorified secretaries to the custodial crew. And, of course, the aforementioned news anchor.

I don’t know the exact amount of the settlement (apparently senior management had now figured out how copiers work), but it was a very, very large number. The news director was gone within the week.

Whatever you may think about the ethics of the news director’s plan, you pretty much have to agree that he screwed up.

“What a bonehead!” you may have gleefully exclaimed. Perhaps you used other words. “I would never make a mistake like that,” you continue.

Maybe not, but there are plenty of others. Have you ever hit “Reply All,” only to realize with horror a nanosecond later that you’ve just sent your snarky comment about your boss’s wife to, among others, your boss? Have you ever said something derogatory about a colleague only to turn around and see that colleague standing right behind you?

Okay, these might be extreme examples. (Then again, they might not be.) But here’s the lesson. As a leader, you are held up to a higher standard. Leadership–real leadership (as opposed to “leadership by title”)–is built on trust, and once that trust is eroded, it’s virtually impossible to get it back.

Real leadership (as opposed to leadership by title)--is built on trust, and once that trust is eroded, it's virtually impossible to get it back. Share on X

So how do you avoid that erosion of trust? The best advice may have come from Thumper’s mom. [Note to the younger generation: Thumper was an animated rabbit in a Disney movie called Bambi. Bambi had a mom too, but…well…I don’t want to get into it. Oh great. Now I need  a tissue.] Here’s what Thumper’s mom said:

[quote]If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.[/quote]

Just avoid the snarky comments altogether. They’re beneath you as a leader, and they’re beneath you as a person. If you avoid the snarky comments, they can’t come back to bite you in the ass.

Simple? Yes. Too simple? Maybe. But this I know for sure: nobody is ever going to find the comments you didn’t make sitting in the copier the following morning.


About the Author:

29-time Emmy Award winner and Hall of Fame keynote speaker Bill Stainton, CSP is an expert on Innovation, Creativity, and Breakthrough Thinking. He helps leaders and their teams come up with innovative solutions — on demand — to their most challenging problems.
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