The Wood Behind the Walls

Lance Ideas, Leadership 2 Comments

Reading Time: 4 minutes

For the past week I have been living in a Nyquil commercial, only without the peaceful night’s sleep at the end of the little cup of emerald syrup. I have been sick with a seasonal whatever, and missed a week of work (and blogging too) as a result. After the first couple of days, I paid a visit to my family doctor. He checked me out only to inform me that my scourge was likely viral, and time was really the only prescription he could offer. (He did give me something to mitigate the symptoms, mercifully.) So I rested and waited, and the weekend came … and I began feeling worse. By Sunday night, I was sure that whatever I had started with had now transmogrified into a full-blown sinus infection.

Then Monday came, and something amazing happened. I called my doctor’s office and asked the receptionist to ask my doctor to phone in a prescription for an antibiotic to my pharmacy without requiring me to come in for another visit. Within an hour, I was in the drive-thru at my pharmacy picking up what I hoped to be my sweet relief. I downed my first daily dose before leaving the parking lot.

Amazing. (And I’m not talking about the wonders of Levofloxacin.)

I placed a phone call and spoke to a voice. That voice, after hearing me recite my name and date of birth, took my request at face value. I assume she relayed my plea to an actual doctor — presumably mine — who, without even speaking to me himself, much less actually examining me, authorized a prescription for me. The authority of my doctor was then relayed to my pharmacy by phone (or, more likely, by email), and a pharmacist I’ve never met set out to measure out the correct medication for my ailment. Without knowing for sure that any of this had actually happened, I dragged myself into my car and drove to my pharmacy, fully expecting an amber-colored bottle of Hope to be ready by the time I got there. Through the glass of the drive-thru I provided my name and date of birth again, and received a bottle of pills in exchange for a swipe of my debit card … itself a promise of funds to be delivered by my bank on my authority at some point in the near future. I swallowed my first dose without first using my phone to Google “levofloxacin” to make sure it was what I should be taking. Of course, how would I know if the white capsules in the bottle are actually the antibiotic listed on the label? Nevermind: I didn’t even stop to read the label before opening the bottle and getting started down the road to recovery.

None of this happens without Trust — not the interpersonal kind, but the broader systemic trust. Institutional trust. For all of the other requirements that go into a system of people working together, the most fundamental is Trust. This is true for every commercial transaction, every interpersonal relationship, and every organizational enterprise. The great achievement of Civilization itself begins with the systemic scaling of the bonds of trust beyond the boundaries of instinct, where familial and tribal connections reside. The interconnecting “web of trust” is what enabled mankind to move from an existence that was naturally “nasty, brutish, and short” to the world of moonshots and miracles. The foundational element of Western Civilization itself — the Rule of Law — is a manifestation of the principle of Trust applied to the governing of the affairs of men: laws that are codified and applicable to all equally can be trusted and relied upon; laws that are the subject of the whims of the current strongman in charge cannot.

The unseen force of Trust is also a critical component of a defining feature of our modern world: speed. Yesterday I went from worsening symptoms to the first dose of recovery in 60 minutes because of the system of trust built into our commercial health care system. (The many failings of that same system are a discussion for another time.) Everything from produce to Christmas toys move across expanses of miles at magical speeds because of the system of trust built into our transportation and shipping systems. While in physics Speed is the measure of distance over time, in human affairs, it is equally the measure of Effort x Trust.

Unfortunately, Trust is also one of the first casualties when Leaders fail, whether through avarice, short-sightedness, or incompetence. The temptation to offer easy promises of grand fixes to current problems … and to use scape-goats to explain away the failure to deliver on those promises … is powerful. When indulged, a cycle is born, and the system — whether a team, a company, or a nation — begins to breakdown. Institutional trust is sacrificed on the altar of a failed leader’s personal interest, and the whole suffers for it. The Trust that makes the system work is so much a part of the background of life that people have long stopped noticing its importance. Like the load-bearing studs behind the painted walls of a grand house, Trust does the invisible work of holding the organizational structure together. Sacrificing it for any reason is the equivalent of pulling out the timbers of a wall to build furniture for the house. Such cannibalism cannot last long until the new custom furniture lies hidden beneath the ruin of the collapsed home it was meant to decorate.

As a Leader, you can do nothing more valuable for the cause you are leading than to preserve, defend, and expand the Trust within your organization’s system. There is no strategy, initiative, or opportunity of greater worth to the success of everything you are trying to accomplish. Lead accordingly.

(And if my Boss is reading: thanks to the wonders of modern pharmaceuticals, I fully expect to be back in the office tomorrow.)


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