Elephants Unchained...Build Trust to Instill Confidence
Updated: May 11
Have you ever seen an elephant at a circus when he is not performing? Typically, you’ll find him tethered with a rope around one leg and the rope attached to a stake in the ground.
The elephant could easily snap the rope or pull the stake out of the ground. These are the same powerful, majestic animals that you’ve seen on wildlife shows tearing out entire trees with their trunks!
The secret behind this phenomenon lies in how elephants are trained. It starts when they are very young; they’re tethered to a stake, and no matter how hard they try, they absolutely cannot pull free nor can they break the rope that restrains them. Over time, as the scenario plays itself out without ever changing, the elephant “learns” that he cannot break free of the stake. Eventually, he stops trying to get free; he trusts in his early experiences. This belief stays with him even after he has become a full-sized adult and is one of the strongest animals on earth. His belief becomes his shackle.
Trust is a Continuum
Trust is a word that everyone commonly uses and hears. In God we trust. Trust me. I don’t trust him. You can trust her to get it done right. Trust no one over 30. The list is near endless.
Trust is also an action. Something we do repeatedly in our daily lives, often without much thought at all. We go to a doctor, trusting in his title, that he will heal rather than harm us. We invest money in stocks and bonds, trusting that our money will not be stolen. We drive our cars on streets and superhighways, trusting that the other drivers are skilled enough not to collide with us. We trust our children to teachers and babysitters. Yes, indeed, there is much that we “trust.”
But, like every other word that is tied to a human emotion, trust is hardly a simple and easily defined condition. No, it is much more than that. Trust can be thought of as a continuum stretching from merely “hope” at its weakest end to absolute “confidence” at the strongest end point.
In its weakest state, trust is an ephemeral, unsupported desire, or hope for a situation or an outcome. In its strongest state, trust is supported by experience rather than desire, and the situation/outcome becomes far more likely to the point of unshakeable confidence and virtual certainty. The two ends of the continuum then are anchored by hope and desire at one end versus certain confidence and knowledge at the other.
The Similarity Between Elephants and People
Just as the elephant is held back, unable to free himself from the stake solely because of his belief, people too are frequently held back by similar beliefs and circumstances. Perhaps a teacher called them lazy so often that eventually they believed it to be true and they ceased working hard in school, becoming content to just get by. Or maybe, a boss who constantly reviled their work no matter how hard they tried until they simply stopped trying. The beliefs that shackle can be forged by a parent, a sibling, a coach, a bully, a coworker or any of many possible agents. No matter the source, the impact can be life-altering.
Everyone Has Shackles
It is the human condition that we are not perfect. From the unemployed to the C-suite, no one is exempt from imperfection. Fortunately, we each have the same potential to free ourselves from that which holds us back, from what prevents us from being as perfect as we can be, considering the talents we do have.
The process of freeing ourselves from our flaws is based on deep and meaningful introspection. There is no substitute process, no easier, less intense alternative path. We must have real and substantial knowledge of ourselves, the good, the bad, and especially the ugly if we are to free our potential and ourselves. We must be able to examine those beliefs that we blindly trust, yet which have falsely shackled us. It is only through introspection that we achieve the freedom to reach our potential.
Leaders Must Free Themselves First
The difference between a merely good company and a truly great company lies in its people. Even mildly successful leaders innately know this, although they may not understand it. The real understanding lies in being aware of what it is that holds employees back from achieving more of their potential.
Leaders, even those considered successful and mature, are themselves often shackled by their beliefs. It could be by a mistaken belief that whatever worked in the past will continue to do so. Or underestimating their staff and employees as being far less capable. Or overestimating their own talents, falsely believing themselves capable of leading an organization into a new future when they refuse to change what they believe in and are willing to do.
By continuing to believe in what has worked or not worked in the past, they fail to harness the talent of their people, or their own talents for that matter. We all know the adjective that describes the person who continues to do the same thing while expecting different results.
As a leader, whoever you are, at any moment in time, you are already the best you can be. In order to do better, you must change; you must become something other. You are not entitled to achieving more, or becoming something better while remaining the same. You cannot do the same thing and expect different results.
To change, first, you need to know yourself—the good, the bad, and the ugly self. This requires a commitment to introspection and reflection on who you are and how you work. The reasons you do what you do—what motivates you, inspires you, fans your flames, or stifles your fire and brings a sense of defeat and hesitation—must be deciphered, understood and directed by you in the desired direction.
Once you fully appreciate who you currently are, you then must decide whether you want to be better in order to do better. If the answer is yes, then you commit to change no matter how difficult that may be.
Masterful Leaders Develop Employees' Confidence
The process of moving from a condition of mere hope to a state of unshakeable confidence is based on positive and consistent experiences.
It is this path that the enlightened CEO will pursue. As employees experience consistently positive experiences with the CEO and staff, their level of “trust” progresses to the point that they not only believe in their leader, but in themselves and what they can achieve. They no longer just hope for a better future, but instead see themselves making it and enjoying the benefits of having done so.
While many people may have thought Steve Jobs to be difficult and unrealistic, they nonetheless made the journey from skeptic to acolyte as they experienced Jobs taking the company from near death to the top of the charts. They had developed an unshakeable confidence in his ability to lead them in developing unheard-of innovations.
This is the type of result to expect when employees are allowed to place their trust in the C-suite and in their own abilities.
Introspection—The Key to Unlocking the Shackles
Understanding what trust is, and what it is not, is both science and art. As a first step, leaders must understand the concept of trust and the elements that precipitate it. But this is not enough. Understanding trust is one thing; being able to build it and extend it to unshakeable confidence is something else altogether.
Trust is always personal. It is built on personal experiences, not corporate letterhead. Leaders who wish to be trusted by their staff, by their employees and by their board members must remember that their actions speak volumes about their trustworthiness. Trust is built slowly and consecutively. And like a pyramid, the pinnacle of absolute confidence rests on a very broad base of increasingly higher levels of trust.
Introspection is the most effective tool available to allow one to unlock and shed the shackles of mistakenly held beliefs, beliefs that effect and alter the very way in which we see the world and the people in it. Introspection marks the beginning of the journey to building real, sustainable trust and confidence.
Introspection is looking inwards, with an objective magnifying glass at one’s thoughts and feelings, one’s past and present, and one’s desired future. Sorting through what you feel and think is critical in order to make objective and accurate decisions. Introspection safeguards you from your own biases and faulty beliefs that might erroneously influence your clarity of thinking and decision-making.