Trust + Spark = Leadership Culture

Trust + Spark = Leadership Culture


I had a dream while I was working on this book.

In the dream, I was speaking to a group of leaders about the practices that build high-performing organizations.

A cluster of people gathered around me, asking me questions.

One person said: “Don’t you have a simple formula?”

At that time I didn’t have a formula or a Grand Unified Theory. But in my dream, I turned to a convenient white board (dreams are handy that way) and wrote down this equation:

T (Trust) + S (Spark) = LC (Leadership Culture) 

I awoke from my dream and went into the kitchen to write the formula down. And in the days following my dream, I thought about it more. And I realized that all the different practices that go into making a great company fit under the formula of T + S = LC. The equation captures profoundly— and at the same time, simply—a framework for understanding the fundamental things that effective leaders do to build a “leadership culture” —in which everyone runs it like they own it.

“They focus on building trust, and they focus on generating innovation (spark).”

One of my best friends, John, is an architect. We think about things in similar ways. When he designs a building, he thinks about its organic fit within its site, about the light at different times of day. He focuses on the building’s strength, durability, and sustainability. He thinks about how people will live in the building, the flow, the communication from room to room, from floor to floor. And he thinks about the costs and the benefits of different designs.

In our firm, we think of ourselves as architects of organizations. We work with corporations, nonprofits, public agencies, cooperatives, and many other kinds of organizations to achieve the same things: strength, sustainability, and coherency of structure. Communication and flow. The agility of the company to respond to challenges. And (of course) revenues, costs, and profits.

But regardless of the kind of organization, we’ve learned there are ten specific practices that leaders must put into play to make an organization great. Five fit under the T side of the equation. Five fit under S. The equation provides the mental model, the framework. The specific practices make the model come to life.

Build Trust:  

  1. Align the Core Values
  2. Sharpen the Focus
  3. Lead Through Others
  4. Manage Decisions Well
  5. Start With Yourself

Spark Innovation: 

  1. Accelerate the Pace of Change
  2. Stimulate Creative Flow
  3. Spread Systems Thinking
  4. Multiply the Communication
  5. Ask Powerful Questions

Though the practices are divided into two groups, trust and spark are not separate engines. As mentioned earlier, they are more like a combined cycle power plant in which trust fuels innovation and innovation generates trust. They work synergistically, and all ten need to be employed to build a leadership culture.

Let me reiterate why this is: Human beings are hardwired to respond positively to trust and spark. Neither on its own is enough. In cultures that are high in trust but low in spark, people feel respect and trust for one another, but their creative energies are not engaged in continuously improving the enterprise. In cultures that are high in spark but low in trust, people behave entrepreneurially but fail to make their ideas mesh, so conflict abounds.

The best organizations focus on both trust and spark. In those companies, people are consistently engaged and thinking and acting in ways that lead to the company’s overall success. They attract and retain the most talented employees. They innovate constantly. They surprise and delight their customers. They outperform their peers. When trust and spark work together, people feel free, ask powerful questions, and air conflicting opinions. The culture shifts from one in which people focus on their jobs to one in which people focus on the performance of the entire organization. When you’re operating with trust and spark, everyone runs it like they own it. As you’ll learn in The Leadership Equation, companies like Zappos, Apple, and Southwest Airlines have become phenomenally successful by following this formula for building a leadership culture.

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