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People follow leaders who earn their trust

COMMENTARY: If you want to know why employees often distrust their leaders, it is because they perceive that when push comes to shove leaders put themselves ahead of the people they serve.

An example of this is occurring in India right now as General Vijay Kumar Singh is petitioning India's Supreme Court to correct his birthdate. If the date is not changed, then General Singh must retire from his post as Army Chief of Staff this May when he will turn 62, the mandatory retirement age for senior officers.

Official records show that Singh, a decorated war veteran, was born May 10, 1950; Singh claims that he was actually born a year later. However, until now he has lived with the earlier date and in fact when receiving previous promotions never made mention of what he claims is his actual birthdate. Singh insists he was "pressured" to accept the earlier birthdate and last year appealed to the Defense Ministry, which turned him down.

"This is about his pride, integrity and honor," said Puneet Bali, one of General Singh's lawyers. General Singh himself told NDTV, "It is not something for personal gains, so far as I'm concerned." But, as reported in the New York Times, this case has been "disheartening" to former military leaders. As a retired Indian Navy officer put it, Singh "may be right, in terms of procedure. But what this has done is diminish the institution and tarnish the individual, no matter how unwarranted it may be."

Exactly! General Singh has put career ahead of honor and nothing erodes confidence in leadership as well as morale among followers than when a senior leader puts self-interest ahead of organizational interest. Respect does not come with a title; it is earned through hard work. As much as employees want to trust their supervisors, it is up to the supervisor to demonstrate that he or she is worthy of trust or followership.

Does this mean that leaders need to buddy up with their followers? No way. Some leaders are outgoing and affable and friendly with subordinates but such bonhomie is a reflection of their personality. Other leaders may be more reserved and even standoffish when it comes to personal matters. Again it is a matter of style. What is significant is whether that leader demonstrates the integrity to lead. Integrity emerges from personal example, specifically doing what is right all of the time, not when it suits you.

Sacrifice solidifies integrity, when followers see their leaders give up something tangible in order to lead more effectively. We know examples of executives who have refused bonuses so that employees can receive a pay increase. More common are the examples of executives who work weekends if their employees are asked to do so, and when they give more of themselves to help an employee in need.

Integrity does not emerge from words; it stems from actions. There are many perquisites to senior leadership - both personal and professional - but in return a leader must serve the organization, not the other way around.

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