A few years ago, Jimmy Fallon included this joke in his Tonight Show monologue: “President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison yesterday. Obama said it was a good chance to talk about prison reform, and to catch up with so many former congressmen.”
At the risk of committing the sin of joke explanation, it is easy to see why this quip is funny. The understanding that Congress is full of crooked people is a pedestrian outlook on our state of affairs. And this joke works because it strokes us all for not being as evil as those politicians in Washington D.C.
However, it may come as no surprise to you to learn that trust in nearly all of our civil institutions is at an overall all-time low. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, public schools, banks and hospitals — organizations in which used to carry high regard in our communities — are not trusted. In light of this data, Fallon’s joke takes on a darker meaning. None of the three institutions he names, the presidency (16% trust), the criminal justice system (9% trust) nor Congress (3% trust), have the confidence of the American people.
The reasons for our falling confidence are usually captured in simple bromides: Don’t trust the man. Politicians are crooks. Power corrupts. Corporations are greedy.
Those conclusions are satisfactory if you hope to be a late-night comedian. However, if you hope to still accomplish something as a business leader in the context of this mounting animus, then I would offer a different conclusion: We lack confidence in institutions because our basis for trust has shifted.
Our systems for business, governance and education were made to increase our certainty. They have attempted to predict the future for us. The institutions did what they were designed to do. But the more we invested in them, the more they failed us. Because the future is not certain. It cannot be predicted. That means our systems are not flawed. It is our need for certainty — for predicting a singular future that does not exist — that has set them up to fail us.
Business leaders who hope to be effective must embrace this truth. Trust is built by embracing uncertainty and acting with confidence anyway. And the best way to achieve that mindset is to think like futurist.
Trust is built by embracing uncertainty and acting with confidence anyway.
Futurists describe the future as a possibility space — not unlike shining a light into a dark room. There are multiple things that become visible. Some of them you can barely see — the possible futures. Some are more visible — plausible futures. And some of them have much more statistical likelihood — probable futures. If you can outline your vision of the future with this understanding, you can better meet the uncertain road ahead. And you can win more confidence from your employees, vendors, customers and prospects.
Here’s a challenge: With your leadership team, create multiple visions of the future — at least ten of them set at least 20 years in the future. After you have gathered them, use some consensus to decide what the preferred futures would be. Once you have found at least one or two of them, assign them a category — probable, plausible, possible. If your futures you prefer are out in the possible space, you know then that you will have to invest in making more changes. You can create your strategic plan accordingly, and you can articulate with confidence why you have the vision and what you are asking of your team.
Your level of authenticity about the nature of your vision builds trust. Rather than money or power or brute force, increasing trust is the best way to market your brand. Your ability to be comfortable in the midst of uncertainty and to lead your brand like a futurist are critical to cementing trust within your network. And building a trust network increases your profitability.