How Disruptors Build Trust and Power

This week I want to share two critically important and misunderstood concepts of disruptive leadership: Power and Trust.

Why does power matter? 

Leadership is about the gathering and the exercising of power, which allows you to influence people so that they take action. That is what power is all about — not control, not force, but influence. Strong, effective leaders know how to accumulate power and use it at the right times.

A key part of this definition of power is that it’s not a zero sum game. It’s not an either-or: if I have power then you don’t, and if you have power then I don’t. 

In fact, power as influencing action is an abundant resource that we can build, invest in and grow. This is so exciting! We can actually increase our power in a systematic and intentional way. Here’s how:

3 Ways to Abundantly Build Power:

  1. Referential Power: you build referential power by finding, identifying, and connecting with people in different areas. Referential power is all about connection. For example, build up the network inside of your organization, through the use of digital collaboration platforms, networking events, lunch-and-learns, so everyone can build power through a rich internal personal network.
  2. Informational Power: you increase the informational power inside an organization by giving people access to information. I was recently working with a CEO who realized that most of the information in her organization was held by a small number of VPs and executives. Then she realized: almost all of it could be made available! So they opened up the vaults and made sure everyone knew how to access the information responsibly, so they had the power to make decisions directly.
  3. Expertise Power: identify people who have an area of expertise, and develop that expertise and use recognition. Then let others know: Hey everybody, go to this expert because they know how to do this. Make sure the experts are tapping into informational and referential power too, so that they’re able to expand their power as well.

We’re used to thinking of power as scarce, of hoarding it for our own gain. But in today’s information-rich, data-rich and networked world, the more you share power, the more you get it. I went into more detail in my livestream Redefining “Power,” which you can watch here.

This is key to being a disruptive leader: creating a strong sense of power across your organization, where everybody has power because they have access to information, they are experts or know experts, and they have connections across the organization.

Why is trust important? 

It seems like a no brainer, right? Of course trust is important. But if it’s important, why do we spend so little time talking about it and building it intentionally?

If you’re trying to create change, transformation and (my favorite word!) disruption, then you need trust… and trust scaffolding to support it. Trust is not built by luck or never making any mistakes. We can make intentional choices in our organizations and relationships to consistently build and nurture trust.

What are the elements of trust? Studies find that trust relies on four C’s: competency, communication, consistency, and compassion. So what can you do in your organization to foster these 4 C’s? How can you intentionally build trust and the scaffolding necessary to support it?

  1. Transparency: In my research when I ask people what they really want in their leader, two things come up again and again: They want people to be honest, and they want people to be fair. You do those two things, and people will trust you. So make openness and transparency part of your culture! Be clear about what the rules are and why. Give access to information — because informational power builds trust.
  2. Accountability: Clear rules and boundaries are meaningless unless they are reinforced fairly. When you reinforce the rules, it creates psychological safety. Imagine someone speaking over you while you’re presenting, and a colleague says, “wait,” and lets you say your piece. Consistent enforcement of rules like “we don’t interrupt each other” make all the difference in building psychological safety – and trust.
  3. Allyship: Being an ally means I will speak up on your behalf when you don’t have power. I love this, because you can always be on the lookout for opportunities to be an ally for somebody, whether as a leader, a peer, or a friend or family member. Practicing allyship builds deep trust — it shows that you are here to support others at vulnerable points in their lives. This is always impactful, but especially so when leaders with privilege exercise their power on someone else’s behalf.

It can take decades to build trust, but seconds to destroy it (I go into more detail in my livestream on Trust Scaffolding — which you can watch here). But if you bake transparency, accountability and allyship into the fabric of your organization (and your personal life!), you will have the trust scaffolding you need to recover from mistakes and steer your team, your company, and your life from deep integrity and trust.

Your Turn

What surprised you about my definition or power? Have you ever thought about building “trust scaffolding” before? Let me know in the comments. I’ve shared a personal example when I was called out for breaking trust, and I’d love to hear a story from you!