Saving the World
Seven percent. No, it's not the approval rating of congress (it's slightly higher) or the amount of actual cheese in Cheetos (it's much lower) . It's the percentage of respondents in a poll by Maritz who said they believed their leaders could be trusted to have their backs. Whoa. Trust is broken, and it's not just our trust in our boss at work. The level of trust in virtually every major institution that once enjoyed unquestioned authority is at all time lows. Government, education, churches, law enforcement, banks, corporations, the media, you name it, all have lost authority and trust.
At one time most people respected the badge, the office, the company, the denomination, and because of that, those institutions wielded authority. But scandals and corruption that have come to light through 24-hour news cycles and citizen journalists armed with social media have fed into a mass cynicism that every institution is suspect.
The authority institutions once enjoyed has shifted. It now resides almost completely in the individual relationships. I may not trust the police, but I trust the individual officer whose name I know because he has put in the time to build connections with the people in my neighborhood. I may not trust the mega-corporation I work for but I might feel a deep loyalty to the manager or coworker who remembers my kids' names and whose transparency and fairness and small acts of kindness and recognition have convinced me that I can count on him or her.
So what has replaced institutional authority is relational authority. The individual agent in any institution is paramount. He or she is the reason for loyalty and trust of others. It follows that the goal of every institution should then be to cultivate a culture of character where each member is prepared to care and serve and encourage the people around them and to provide for their emotional needs.
Maybe that sounds fluffy and unserious but if it does, that's probably because a deeply ingrained cultural notion that softness equates to weakness and authority is unemotional and demanding of loyalty. After all, isn't that what makes the military--one of the oldest institutions there is--work?
In WWII, my father-in-law was a sergeant and squad leader in the 36th Texas T-Patch Division, which, by the end of the war, had suffered over 36,000 casualties. He came away with a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart for his service. When the movie, Saving Private Ryan, came out in 1998, he and I went to see it together and afterward, it was clear that the realistic battle scenes had stirred old memories and feelings. I had to ask how he had ever summoned the courage to march toward such danger. Was it old-fashioned patriotism or was it the cause of defeating the evils of Nazi Germany, or was it just a deep respect for authority in the U.S. Army? He told me, “I never thought of those things while I was in it. I just wanted to get home. But you did it for your buddies. You couldn’t let them down.”
Other vets I’ve talked to express similar feelings. In those critical moments, combat soldiers may not consider their cause or the chain of command and certainly aren't thinking about their pay. It’s the people around them they care about. It's the ones back home they're fighting to get back to. It’s the people you eat with and laugh with. It's the people you know you can turn to for help when you need it. It's the ones who can ignite your joy when you're feeling low and raise your spirits with their encouragement. It's the people who you're convinced care about you.
Too many organizations devote all their focus to transactional matters: here’s what we give to you in return for what we expect from you. But real shared success has always been less about the transaction and more about the strength and quality of the relationships involved. And like it or not, relationships succeed or fail based on how the people in them are made to feel.
You see, authority of any kind isn't real. It's just an agreement. When enough people agree to abide by the idea, it seems real. But when trust erodes, the illusion of institutional authority evaporates. The results include people staying home from church, not turning to the police for enforcement, not complying with the rules, not pledging loyalty to the brand, not voting the party line.
It may sound like the next stop is a chaotic free-for-all, but not necessarily. Meeting the emotional needs of others for recognition, a sense of belonging, a need for joy and compassion is what builds trust and relationships. And relationships will save the world.