Bob Ross, the iconic soft-spoken painter of the 1980s and ’90s, was once an Air Force Master Sergeant who had to have a tough exterior and make harsh demands of his men. He was later quoted by Linda Shieves in a July 7, 1990 Orlando Sentinel article vowing to never yell again after leaving the military. Ross recognized early that many leadership styles could accomplish the mission, but finding the style that best connected with your own personal strengths was the real key to success.
In the foreword for the 10th-anniversary edition of his iconic book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman warns of a fallacy. Although it’s still a valid component of leadership, he explains that emotional intelligence has been improperly expanded by many to falsely represent the sole measure of one’s leadership ability. Goleman warns that this expansion ignores important elements such as intelligence, capability, proper expectations or fit for the role and contextual elements such as company culture and organizational trust.
This warning compliments other iconic research found in the Gallup research and published in Strengths Based Leadership by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie. Rath and Conchie’s research found that the ability to effectively lead was directly tied to four key elements: trust, compassion, stability and hope.
Trust can be the most challenging. High levels of trust require a command of the other three, as well as a personal intrinsic authenticity. An organization with actions that are misaligned with its stated values breaks trust and causes employees to lose hope. A leader who neglects insights into employees’ nonwork lives on a human level can seem selfish, cold and lacking compassion. Organizations in constant turmoil due to high growth, high turnover or both may be seen as unstable and volatile.
Each of these scenarios places a leader at risk of losing employee engagement. Gallup research found that when employees do not trust the company’s leaders, just one in 12 are engaged — compared to one in two when the opposite is true.
Research on psychological contracts further illuminates these risks. The psychological contract has been traditionally defined as an inducement-contribution exchange agreement between an employee and employer. It extends from the early writings of Chester Barnard and his classic book The Functions of the Executive from 1938. In it, Barnard highlights the importance of employer-employee communication in times of change. In particular, he highlights four conditions for communication to be effective: It must be understood by the recipient, it must be possible for the recipient to do what is being asked, what is being asked must not be incompatible with the recipient’s own goals and it must not be incompatible with the goals of the organization. He believed the effectiveness and efficiency of an organization were predicated on workers’ level of understanding and acceptance of organizational goals and that this understanding could only happen through the right communication. In particular, he believed that unless the employees believed the message being communicated was in congruence with their own personal goals, they would resist.
“There are no mistakes, only happy accidents.” ― Bob Ross
Arguably Bob Ross’s most famous quote, it provides a compelling lens at which to look at leadership. He commonly said this during episodes of his long-running television show The Joy of Painting, and it has become synonymous with the ideals of mindset and self-compassion. For leaders, holding space for employees to take risks, fail early and learn from mistakes without consequences can be key elements of trust-building.
The following three tips serve as a summation of the research above. They’re perfect for leaders looking to shore up their own trust within their teams.
1. Check the looking glass. Leaders should do continual and genuine self-reflection. Leaders whose personal behaviors contradict the behaviors they ask for in others will cause immediate red flags, as will contradictions in their words and behaviors. These contradictions can undermine a leader’s authority and erode the all-important element of trust.
2. Get to know your humans. Employees are human, with complex situational and relational elements that extend in and out of the workplace. The more a leader understands the spherical nature of each person they lead, the better they can capitalize on their strengths, which is a win-win for the employee and the organization.
3. Strive for consistency. According to Rath and Conchie, stability and security play into nearly every decision humans make. Leaders should focus on consistency in organizational structure, transparency in metrics and reward structures, and a steadfast commitment to consistent short- and long-term goals year over year.
Without acknowledgment and adherence to these three ideas, leaders risk losing their best human assets.
The greatest leadership anyone can provide is empowerment. Empowering others to reach their full potential and utilizing their own individual strengths comes from more than a single leader: It takes a village. A leader who elicits trust through compassion, stability and hope will empower entire teams to do the same. Take inspiration from Bob Ross …
“This is your world. You’re the creator. Find freedom on this canvas. Believe that you can do it, because you can do it. You have unlimited power on the canvas. You can literally move mountains.” ― Bob Ross