On returning from a bicycle ride Sunday afternoon, I caught the last few innings of the Chicago Cubs game—they actually won, believe it or not—and then flipped the channel to our local PBS station. I always enjoy the Great Performances series, and this was to be no exception. It was the Metropolitan Opera’s performance of Puccini’s poignant tragedy, Madama Butterfly.The curtain was just rising. For the next two and a half hours I was transfixed. The entire three-act production was masterful. I have enjoyed opera for years, and Butterfly is a favorite of every opera buff. Newcomers to the opera always seem to like it, too. The final scene is passionate and heartbreaking. If you see it, you’ll be humming Puccini’s music for days afterward.Beyond the drama and the music, a moral truth embedded in Butterfly flew off the screen at me. It is just this: We often underestimate the degree to which others trust us.It is a paradox of leadership that the leader, not the follower, is often the more cynical. That fact, coupled with the leader’s blindness to his own cynicism, makes it deceptively easy for the leader to carelessly betray the trust of the follower.The betrayal, often beginning with only the slightest of difficulty, sows the seeds of further, larger betrayals of trust. Together, these betrayals unintentionally but inevitably cost the leaders the loyalty of their would-be followers. In short, the potential for leadership often falls on its own sword. It is a sad truth that leaders can have themselves to blame for the disengagement of employees.Butterfly is set in Nagasaki, Japan, in the late Nineteenth Century. Its themes, as in so much of opera, are love, devotion, and betrayal. The narrative, in brief, involves an American naval lieutenant by the name of Pinkerton who has lustful eyes for a 15-year-old geisha by the name of Cio-Cio-San, whose nickname is Butterfly.Pinkerton, over the objections of the U.S. consul, a gentleman named Sharpless, betroths and marries Butterfly and settles into a modern home. Expecting a life of mutual devotion, Butterfly renounces her religious faith at the cost of all her family ties. On their wedding night, Pinkerton and Butterfly consummate their marriage.Soon, Pinkerton is recalled to the United States. He promises to return “when the robins nest.” Three years pass before he reappears. During that time, Butterfly has given birth to a blue-eyed boy, obviously the lieutenant’s son. Butterfly waits patiently, never doubting her husband’s promise. Day after day, she looks out on the harbor for an American ship, sure to bring Lieutenant Pinkerton.Eventually, the American officer does return—but with his new American wife. Butterfly’s heart and soul collapse in agonizing recognition that her devotion was misplaced. Knowing that her son can never live a life of dignity in Japan, she commits suicide and leaves her son to be adopted and raised in the United States.The salient lesson on leadership comes in the first act, when Sharpless (in this production performed by baritone Dwayne Croft) warns Pinkerton (tenor Marcello Giordani) not to enter into a commitment lightly with Butterfly (the exquisite soprano Patricia Racette). Sharpless sings: “Be careful. She trusts you.”What marvelous words: “Be careful. She trusts you.”Every leader should come to work every morning with those words in mind. He should remember that trust is fragile, that it is always a function of perception, that it is inherently subjective, and that it is always in the hands of another person.All day long, every day, the leader should strive to be increasing the level of trust in the organization. To do that, a leader should begin from a position of trust. Be the first to trust, and trust the most. Trust in spite of mistrust and distrust. Trust anyway. Lead through trust.Anything less is a slippery slope to denial, deception, and disappointment. Even little and sporadic deceit will cost you the organizational integrity and cohesion that you need. That, in turn, will cost you the engagement of your people. Without their engagement, you cannot serve your customers and you cannot grow.Trust is the real social capital of any organization. Without it, people cannot work together. No one wants to come to work for untrustworthy managers. No one wants to buy from an untrustworthy company. No one wants to invest in an untrustworthy enterprise. For all these reasons, trust is your most important asset. Prize it. Protect it. So be the first to trust. Be eager to trust. Trust most. Leave cynicism to the losers. There will always be enough of them, and they will never understand.
What constitutes lying? So-called fish stories from vacation? Golf scores omitting the penalty strokes? Your height and weight on a drivers license? Fabricated excuses for being late? Omission on a resume? False claim? Exaggerated donations on a tax return? Canceling a social engagement because you’re tired?
Why cant you seeWhat youre doing to meWhen you dont believe a word I say?We cant go on togetherWith suspicious mindsAnd we cant build our dreamsWith suspicious minds.“Suspicious Minds”Lyrics by Mark James
“Be careful. She trusts you.” U.S. consul to Lieutenant Pinkerton Madame Butterfly Giacomo Puccini
Whither Trust?Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.All the kings horses and all the kings menCouldnt put Humpty together again. Iona and Peter Opie The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951)
Among employees with Among employees withstrong trust in management weak trust in management 58 % 4% . . . say they are completely happy with their job Maritz Research
Among employees with Among employees withstrong trust in management weak trust in management 63 % 7% . . . would be happy to spend the remainder of their career with their present company Maritz Research
Among employees with Among employees withstrong trust in management weak trust in management 51 % 6% . . . would invest their own money in their present company if they could Maritz Research
Among employees with Among employees withstrong trust in management weak trust in management 50 % 3% . . . look forward to coming to work each day Maritz Research
Only 11%of employees say they ‘strongly agree’that their managers show consistency between their words and actions. Maritz Research
Only 38%of corporate employees worldwidesay their managers communicate openly and honestly. Towers Perrin
Eroding Sense of Trust 80% 70% 60% 50% 50% 44% 39% 37% 40% 36% 32% 30% 20% 1984 1987 1991 1998 2006 2010Percentage of Americans saying that most people can be trusted most of the time Source: National Opinion Research Center, University of Chicago
Walter Cronkite“The Most Trusted Man in America”
If I have lost Cronkite,I have lost Middle America. President Lyndon B. Johnson