The Social fabric of our Organisations and broader society is bound together by multiple forces, trust being one of them. To lead, in the context of the Social Age, is to hold power beyond a formal system alone, to lead outside (or in addition to) the Hierarchy. So to lead is to trade in social forces. In this piece, i want to consider how trust binds our social structures together, but also binds them into constraint and stasis. This is part of a broader series of #WorkingOutLoud articles exploring Social Leadership through a lens of ‘tensions’, to understand the forces that bond us together, and drive us apart, and how they can sometimes be one and the same thing.
Trust, like the other social forces, can be characterised by subjectivity, bias, and projection: the definition of each that we understand to be true is internally moderated (what does ‘trust’ mean to you), they are influenced by cultural norms (i am more likely to trust people similar to me, and to follow lines of trust through communities), and we typically project them onto people, rather than being able to objectively measure them (i trust you because i project it onto you, and similarly i am proud of you as a projected force).
We are, at heart, social creatures, and bring this sociability into our realm of Social Leadership, but innate skills alone will not be enough. The types of trust that hold together our family and friendship groups may differ from the types that bind our communities of practice, and differ yet again from that which connects across rifts and cultural divides.
To become a formal leader is to earn or be awarded a position within a Hierarchy, which carries with it both legal and moral obligation: we are bound into a system, with typically both a duty of care to the individuals around us but also to the system itself. So formal leadership exists within it’s own tension: doing what is right for the individual and the system at the same time. Layered on top of that is our Social Leadership: this is not something that we are given, but rather something that we must earn. It comes free of legal obligation (beyond the broader societal structure that we exist within), but is tightly bound by social obligation.
In my early work on Social Leadership, i very much focussed on activity within our Communities, and the ways that we reinforce and forge the bonds that bind us together. But in my more recent work i have become more interested in the forces that divide us and drive us apart, and the ways that our social structures of Tribe and Community tend to hold us separate. In this context, part of Social Leadership is to lead within the extant social system, and part of it is to reform and evolve that system. To interconnect, to build new pathways, to cut diagonally through division.
Because individual action is largely held within a sphere of social consequence, the forces of trust that bind us together also bind our permission to act. They hold us within frames of action and even thought that are established and accepted. To lead across division risks fracturing the trust that we value so highly.
In this sense, there is a cost to leadership (in both the formal system, which comes with a jeopardy to our morality, and the social one, which comes with the peril of betrayal and fractured trust).
Perhaps this is what it means to learn to be a Social Leader: to learn the price that must be paid, and to work out the cost you are willing to bear.
I run the risk of saying that Leadership must betray trust, which is an almost inevitable conclusion of the realisation that ‘trust’ is a force held within closed social structures. Perhaps it is better phrased to say that Leaders should seek to diversify where trust is held, and connect between disparate structures of trust.
Peace is typically a negotiated outcome, and i suspect that, to borrow that language, the Socially Dynamic Organisation, our evolved entities of production and belonging, with their dual band of formal and Social Leadership will themselves be negotiated structures.
I guess that this is the feature of our new systems: they come with jeopardy, but find balance through connection, and a humility to lead beyond comfort. But they do so with a clear eyed view of the moral costs, and currencies of investment at stake.
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