Our most valuable possessions are those which can be shared without lessening: those which, when shared, multiply. Our least valuable possessions are those which, when divided, are diminished.William Danforth, I Dare You!
A Lesson in Ukraine
As we watch events unfolding in the Ukraine with increasing disgust, we struggle to understand “why?” Greed? Power? Control? Madness? Distraction? Revenge? Hubris? I’ll let the geopolitical nerds and psychologists thrash on those questions. Regardless of the “why,” the situation in Ukraine is sad and infuriating. Over the last few days, we’ve learned much of Ukraine’s value in terms of natural resources, strategic position, and population. Our natural tendency is to quantify such value and then use it to rationalize, or better understand, the behavior to possess it.
Of course, when we start parsing the behavior of people and the institutions they lead, it always comes down to value: the often bizarre measure of a thing’s worth. The more we want something, the more valuable it becomes. If more and more of us want that thing, it’s value is driven higher. From there, the more difficult that thing is to get, the more valuable it becomes. Human beings have been fighting over the things they value since the beginning.
Perhaps we can deconstruct the reasons a greedy, power-hungry, dictator might want to invade a neighboring country in terms of that country’s value. I’m sure that’s all very interesting on a map or in a strategic brief. We can get our heads around it intellectually as we quantify the finites of natural resources and measure the geopolitical implications. However, when it comes to life and death, value begins to take on some very basic measures quite quickly. Strategy and natural resources become incredibly abstract when we face the loss of freedom, safety, health, or life.
Down to the Basics
Watching the situation evolve from the safety of our living rooms, we intuit the elemental fears of people facing imminent physical harm and the longer term unknowns of “what next?” The oil, gold, uranium, titanium, ports, and landmass all seem quite academic when the explosions get closer or we’re looking down the barrel of a gun. Without some baseline of safety, we cannot move to any higher level of living. We have to get beyond survival before we can begin to think about anything else.
Safety. Security. These are the building blocks from which we can progress and actually live in any way beyond survival. Without these, we fear. We freeze. We fret. We seek paths to a place where we feel safe. Here, safety, personal security, becomes the most valuable thing in our world. Most of us will give anything for a sense of security. The pandemic reminded us of our vulnerability. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affirms our deepest fears.
But safety isn’t a resource, an asset, or a currency – it is a state of being. Few of us live in a place of imminent threat and, more often than not, threats to our safety or security are more accurately to our sense of safety. Our perception of risk and fear of it’s possibility is normally far more real than the actual threat. Even with the threat from the thugs and diseases of the world, most of us live in fairly secure situations. At least, that is what we believe most of the time.
No, we need to look just a bit deeper to find that most value of resources. We need to look to the source of our sense of security. Our sense of security is built on something more elemental; something we can create and something we can destroy.
A Scarce Resource
Trust. Trust is the foundation. We trust our government to maintain our security. We trust our institutions to provide some level of safety. We trust our laws to provide structure. From there, we can begin to live beyond survival. Without such trust, we are unable to move beyond day-to-day survival and bounce along on the uncertainty of fate’s fickleness. For Ukraine, trust has become a life and death circumstance. Did they place their trust in the right places? We’ll soon know as we see who shows up for them and in what way.
What about the rest of us? Trust is the fabric of our society and has become scarce. In many ways, we don’t trust our politicians, the leaders of our government agencies, the media, corporations, Hollywood, big tech, law enforcement, or people who don’t agree with us. Allow me to use my own industry as an example. The healthcare and associated pharmaceutical industries are taking a beating on the trust front. How bad has it become? The big cry across all facets of the industry right now is “transparency.” We want everyone to be “transparent” with their pricing, their policies, their business practices, their side deals, and a host of hidden behaviors that cause us not trust.
Transparency is the word but people are really calling for honesty. They want the truth. To understand how bad it has become, consider the way in which many firms are positioning themselves. There are a wave of players who categorize themselves as “transparent.” Trust is so low that companies are trying to brand themselves as honest. Claiming to be honest has become a differentiator! If I don’t believe you, I can’t trust you. If I can’t trust you, how can we ever work well together? Scarcity makes trust an incredibly valuable resource. There can be no safety, no security, without trust.
Pathway to Trust
Trust makes our society work. Trust makes our relationships work. Trust is critical for us to progress in any way. Trust is elemental, can be hard to earn, and is easy to lose.
Below are two broad building blocks of trust:
- Shared World View – in order for us to trust, we have to know that we’re playing by the same rules. If we don’t share some basic principles, there can be no trust. In the West, traditional Judeo-Christian values have served as a guidepost for over 2000 years. In the U.S., our Constitution and Bill of Rights establish the foundation. Basic beliefs around ethics and morality unite us on a terra firma that, at the very least, assures that we understand some basic rules of engagement. Lying, cheating, and stealing are non-starters. We value life and the dignity of every human being. We share a belief in the rule of law and individual freedoms. Without this common ground, building trust is nearly impossible.
- Actions – After the basics, it comes down to behavior. Even though we may agree on the black and whites of morality, we may still get lost in the shades of gray. Self-interest often trumps our own beliefs and we are quite capable of rationalizing almost any behavior when we really want something. In the world of business, it’s not just business. The decisions we make, the actions we take, the level of “transparency” we choose, matter. Society is a collection of individuals and we relate to one another at the most basic level: do I trust you? The actions of the individuals aggregate to reflect our organizations, communities, and country. Our institutions reflect us as individuals. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
Our world has a scarcity of trust and it has driven the value of that resource incredibly high. Even when we agree on the broad notions of right and wrong or how one should treat another, we still falter in execution. But what is trust? Trust is a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.” To trust is to risk. To trust is to expose ourselves to someone who might let us down. Yes, organizations let us down but we need to remember that an organization is just a collection of individuals.
To invest one’s trust in another is to give the most valuable gift. To earn the trust of another is a blessing. Want to be trusted?
- Do what you say you’re going to do.
- Show up when needed.
- Do your best every time.
- Tell the truth.
- Don’t cheat.
- Don’t steal.
- Don’t betray.
- Will the good of the other as other.
- Help without expectation of reward.
- Help others solve their problems.
- Protect others when you can.
- Seek win/win situations.
Aren’t these just the basics? Yes. Then why is there such a scarcity of trust? Because we’re human. We’re broken. We’re flawed. We fail. We’re going to lose trust from time to time. Keep working at it. Recognize it for what it is: Precious. Priceless. Worth protecting. Worth earning. How consistently you are able to earn and maintain the trust of others will determine much of the joy and satisfaction you derive from your life.
Remember that it’s “not just business.” All is not fair in love and war. Do not win at any cost. The end does not always justify the means. Trust is the foundation for so much that is good and worthy in our world. When it is earned and given, it multiplies. Be a human of trust. Be a person of honor. It is the most valuable resource in the world.