It takes courage to build trust

You may recall from the British series ‘Yes, Minister’, Sir Humphrey would use the term ‘courageous’ as code for ‘politically stupid’ – usually having the effect of dissuading the Minister to follow his stated intentions. It provided great comedy as well as demonstrating a powerful technique of influencing someone who is risk averse. However, I think it’s time to reclaim the term couragous. We need it in bucket-loads. Without it, it might be impossible to build trust when we need it most.

One example of couragous leadership has been Sharon Starick. Sharon is the chair of the Board for Natural Resources, South Australia Murray Darling Basin. Faced with some unprecedented financial pressures, the Board decided to invite the community into their dilemma. They wanted to work out a solution with the community, not for the community. To explore how to best generate the revenue needed for the services the community most values. Sharon’s role during the deliberative process was outstanding.

Sharon and her Board could have chosen a much less couragous path. Faced with a major financial challenge, imposed upon the Board, she could have been forgiven for taking an easier path. She could have resigned in protest. Or she could have easily mobilised their community to protest and complain. Although being easier to resort to these typical responses, Sharon, along with her Board, decided on a more couragous and ultimately wiser path. She was able to articulate what the Board did have control over. At times Sharon even challenged some rather angry community members to think through the likely consequences of taking any other approach.

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Participants using small wooden cubes for participatory budgeting exercise


For me the most memorable moment arrived when one participant issued quite an accusation toward the end of Day 1. He stated, ‘If I presented this kind of business case to my bank manager I would be shown the door, and very quickly!’ It was met with an enthusiastic round of applause, along with some laughter. It was evident, in that very moment, many participants had not quite understood the challenge they had signed up for. I reminded participants the Board had not brought them together to sell them anything. (Communities have been accustomed to consultation being just that – an attempt to sell a solution. Not this time!)

By contrast this Board was inviting a diverse range of citizens to deliberate over a serious dilemma. They were inviting people to explore possible solutions only after spending time appreciating the challenges they collectively faced. The Board chose to work out this out with the community, not for the community.

It was heartening for the Board to receive an email after day 2 of the deliberative process. It came from the same participant who issued his challenge the previous day. It read,

‘Thanks for the opportunity on the weekend to participate in such a well run event. Your staff and the board are to be commended for the way you became more receptive and open on the Sunday. Obviously a lot of people put in a pile of work between days to have answers produced of that standard.’

Trust was built. The challenge was better understood. More was being asked of participants this time around. The Board was letting go and inviting their community in. The participants had to step up, and make the most of this opportunity. And they did!

The results of the process were impressive and I was thrilled to design and facilitate it, along with Danielle Annells. Although consensus wasn’t reached on all matters there were clear directions and insights for the Board. Importantly the members of the community appreciated this new approach taken by the Board, and also appreciated the complexity of the situation.

I reflected on other processes I have facilitated over the past 25 years or so. How easy it is for leaders to resort to their default position when a new or novel approach is taken. How many times have I heard from them, ‘Well if they are going to behave like this we won’t bother evening talking to them in future!’ Sadly, many leaders have never witnessed what it is like for the community to step up. Usually this is a result of lazy process and a poor remit or question. Regardless, it was what many leaders witness, and what they dread.

Sharon Starick demonstrated great courage, but also great wisdom in this situation. I believe it’s time we distinguish wise or genuine courage, from couragous stupidity. I reckon there would be a terrific business case for genuine courage. Especially if building trust is important!

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