Trust: Long Earned But Quickly Burned

If there is no trust there is no relationship. Period! Trust goes hand in hand with love. Without trust love cannot long exist and, if love cannot exist, you are left with only distrust and fear. If fear is allowed to reign in a relationship, whether it be personal or organizational, it will always lead to diminished performance in every category. Without trust, leadership is like a dog chasing its tail… it will expend a lot of energy, but it will never get anywhere. There will be no foundation on which to build. Trust is quite simply the glue that holds relationships together.

Another important aspect of trust is that it is something that must be earned. It cannot be coerced and it certainly cannot be demanded. I have heard people say many times, “Just trust me on this”. That is always a red flag for me. Why? Because if you have already earned my trust you won’t have to ask for it, and you certainly won’t have to remind me to trust you! Asking me to trust you is a sure sign that I might not want to. The fact is, it takes time to establish and build a trusting relationship. It is not something you can command someone to do, nor should they necessarily take you at your word either until you have proven that you are trustworthy.

My grandfather used to tell me that it took a long while to establish trust, but only a short while to lose it. At the time I didn’t realize how true those words were. If you want people to trust you, then be trustworthy. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Live up to the commitments that you make. Be on time. Speak truthful words. Be open, honest approachable and above all be real. All these things add up to being trustworthy.

My grandfather was able to teach me this truth because he was such a man. Everyone that knew him, knew that they could count on him to follow through on what he said he would do. He had been in business for many years in our hometown and for many years after he died I would run into people that knew him or did business with him. Without fail, they would always tell me that he was one of the finest men they had ever known. I, of course, wholeheartedly agreed with them. He taught me much about how to be trustworthy and to live up to what I committed to do.

This idea of being trustworthy is not a new concept. It is not just an absolutely required behavior for good leaders, it is also required behavior for everybody else as well if they want to be trusted.

Interestingly enough, I can illustrate trust and broken trust all in the same story. To begin with, there is one name that I can mention that has become synonymous with broken trust. You have most likely already figured it out just by the mere mentioning that his name is synonymous with broken trust. His name was, of course, is Benedict Arnold and his breach of loyalty was so grievous that the future of our entire country was imperiled by his selfish choice.

The story, though, is really the story of two men and their relationship during a time of the great struggle that we now refer to as the American Revolution or the Revolutionary War and sometimes simply, the War for American Independence. Whatever name you choose to call it, it was most definitely a precarious time for our fledgling nation. It was a time when even small matters could swing the fortunes of victory in one direction or another very easily. Keep in mind too, that the woefully ill-equipped continental army, which was, at best, nothing more than a rag tag collection of local militia units, was tasked with defeating the British army. Now, the British Army just happened to be the greatest standing army on the planet at the time. It was truly a David and Goliath story of massive proportions.

The man who was tasked with leading, directing and, ultimately, winning the struggle was General George Washington. The other main character in this particular story is his subordinate, the awesomely capable Major General Benedict Arnold. The question that begs an answer here is this: How did one of these men end up being called the father of his country and the other one become synonymous with treason, deceit and treachery? To answer that question I need to give you some background.

The actual incident that resulted in General Arnold’s traitorous act took place in September of 1781. The previous July General Washington had appointed General Arnold as the commander of West Point. Washington had tried to give him a field command but Arnold had turned it down. Due to an earlier leg injury that had left him in great pain and far from his former self physically he simply did not think he was up to the challenge, but he did request that Washington appoint him to command West Point. Washington, considered Arnold to be one of the best field commanders he had ever seen. Arnold’s exploits in earlier battles were legendary. He was quite capable to put it mildly. In 1781 however, Arnold had a problem. It was called bitterness. During his former glory days before he had been wounded, he had been passed over for promotion while other less talented men were promoted ahead of him. Over time this lead to his being extremely bitter about how he had been treated. So, by 1781, he had cooked up a scheme to turn over West Point to the British for twenty pounds sterling.

General George Washington, was forty-nine years old when this incident took place. He was a full nine years Arnold’s senior although they had both seen quite a lot of combat by that time. The difference in the two men rests solely on that of character. Contrast Arnold’s bitterness with Washington’s leadership. It was Washington who wintered at Valley Forge with his troops when he could have easily gone home to Mount Vernon for the winter. He chose to stay with his men and they loved him for it. In battle, Washington always lead the way. On one occasion he had not one, but two, horses shot out from under him. When the battle was over he had two bullet holes in his coat and one in his hat! His men thought him to be almost a god. He had earned their trust and they loved him. Time and time again they laid their very lives on the line for him and he never defaulted on that trust.

Washington’s nature was to see the best in everyone. Certainly this must have helped Arnold to set his plan in motion. Washington genuinely and highly respected Arnold and placed great trust in him. Up to that point, Arnold had earned that trust which is what makes his traitorous act all the more heinous. Amazingly the plot was uncovered by a complete accident and the deceitful act was prevented at the last minute. It is sobering to even consider what might have happened if Arnold had been successful.

Benedict Arnold may have spent his lifetime, up to that point, being honorable, upright and trustworthy. He had earned the right to be trusted. He lost that trust a whole lot faster than he earned it and, to this day, more than two hundred years later, his name still stands for traitor.

This story is an extreme example but, it is nonetheless a very strong lesson. It should serve as great encouragement for us all, to strive for, and succeed, in building strong character that will not only earn trust, but keep it!!

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