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  Leading with Trust is like Sailing Downwind
  Robert Whipple

          This leadership metaphor about the nature of trust comes from the sport of sailing. Though the author is not a sailor, it is easy to observe the difference between sailing into the wind and sailing downwind. In fact, one can do either, but the techniques, effort, and results are dramatically different. Here is a list of some distinctions.

          When sailing upwind, the only way to make forward progress is to “tack,” not going directly into the wind, but at a slight angle, so only part of the velocity vector is actually in the direction one wishes to go. The boat goes back and forth across the water making steady, albeit very slow progress toward one’s goal. Tacking is not only difficult physically, but it requires great skill and knowledge. When tacking, the crew is forced to sit grouped together along the rail, providing needed weight to counteract the heeling force of the wind against the sails. They often get soaked in the process. World class racing sailors will tell people that in order to be a winner, one needs to be nearly perfect with all decisions and actions while tacking.

          If tacking is slow and a lot of work, sailing downwind is the opposite. Here the wind is pushing the boat in the direction the person already wants to go. The crew is sitting more comfortably on deck enjoying a drier ride with the boat more horizontal. As someone speeds toward the goal, in all but the lightest winds, it is many times faster than it was when tacking, because the entire velocity vector aligned with the person’s direction, and much less distance is covered in total. Greater speed and shorter distance equal faster realization of the goal. If the goal for one’s organization is outstanding performance, then getting there faster with less effort and cost is crucial.

          The best leaders have found a way to configure their world so that they get to sail downwind most of the time. Sure, there are times when they need to tack for a while, but 90% of the time they are steering their ship and sailing downwind. That may sound impossible, but leaders who know how to build trust are able to accomplish this feat daily.

          The “wind” in this analogy is trust. If there is a culture of high trust, one is going downwind most of the time. Everything becomes easier, faster, and less taxing when someone is sailing downwind. In low trust environments, leaders are forced to go upwind. This means a constant scramble to achieve productivity by exhortation or coercion rather than true motivation. Damage control is the habitual topic rather than praise for the realization of aggressive goals.

          The alignment of one’s destination relative to the prevailing winds depends on how well someone has mastered the ability to generate and maintain trust within an organization. When trust is high, leadership is enlightened – and the reverse is equally true. Understanding the nature of trust as the driving force for good leadership leads directly to a profound theory of how to leverage that knowledge to make leadership easy rather than difficult. The author’s model for building trust has three elements: 


          1. Table stakes. These basic building blocks of integrity must be present to kindle trust. In poker, one must ante up table stakes to play. Things like being honest, being open, communicating, being consistent, and being ethical simply must be in play as table stakes or the leader has no chance. 

           2. Enabling actions. These actions build trust further once the table stakes are present. Here are some examples: following up, advocating well, being fair, and admitting mistakes. These actions enable the leader to withstand trust withdrawals that happen as a result of ill-advised decisions or unfortunate circumstances. Table stakes and enabling actions are necessary but insufficient conditions for trust to kindle and endure. Without “reinforcing candor”, the table stakes and enabling actions may build trust a little, but their potency is blunted. 

           3. Reinforcing candor. This is the ability to make people glad they expressed a concern with a leader’s inconsistency. Usually, people are punished for expressing a concern with the leader’s actions. When high trust and transparency are present, the leader can set aside his or her ego and reinforce the person who challenges an action. Doing so creates a large trust deposit and allows for future trust-building exchanges.   When candor is not reinforced, people hide their true feelings and do not challenge the leader, so trust is hard to maintain. Leaders who consistently reinforce candor build a culture where trust grows and deepens. 

           Trust and fear are incompatible, and in a culture that values candor fear is suppressed. If people know they will be reinforced for bringing up scary stuff, they’ll do more of it. When candor is encouraged, it enables a transparent flow of   information that leaders can use to understand what is going on.  

           Trust is built by a series of actions or ratchet “clicks” that occur over time. But, like the ratchet used to pull in the sail on a large sailboat, when the pawl holding the ratchet from rotating backward becomes dislodged, the spool can spin back to zero. 

 Visualizing the Ratchet Effect 

          Trust is similar to a bank account. Between two people, there is a current “balance” of trust that is the result of all their transactions to date. When there is interaction (whether online, in a meeting, or with body language) there is a transaction—either a deposit (increasing trust) or a withdrawal (reducing trust). The magnitude of the transaction is determined by its nature. 

           It is easy for a leader to make small deposits in the trust account with people. Treating people with respect and being fair are two examples of trust builders. While making small deposits is easy, making a large deposit is hard. As a leader, nothing that leader says can make a large deposit in trust. It has to be something they do, and it often requires an unusual circumstance, like landing a plane safely in the Hudson River.

           Under most circumstances, the trust balance with people is the result of numerous small deposits (clicks of the ratchet) made over an extended period. On the withdrawal side, with one slip of the tongue, an ill-advised e-mail, or a wrong facial expression, a leader can make a huge withdrawal. Because of the ratchet effect, a small withdrawal can become big because the pawl is no longer engaged in the ratchet. 

           Here is an example of the ratchet effect in a typical conversation: “You know, I have always trusted George. I have worked for him for 15 years, and he has always been straight with me. I have always felt he was on my side when the chips were down, but after what he said in the meeting yesterday, I will never trust him again.” All trust was lost in a single action (and it will take a long time before any new deposits can be made). The trust account went from a positive to a negative balance in a single sentence.

          It would be powerful if we could prevent the ratchet from losing all of its progress by reinserting the pawl back into the ratchet during a serious withdrawal so that it only slips one or two teeth. Reinforcing candor inserts the pawl and provides a magic power that has unparalleled ability to build trust. 

          All leaders make trust withdrawals. Most people don’t feel safe enough to let the leader know when they have been zapped, and so trust plummets. It may even go to zero or a negative balance before it can be corrected (over much time and incredible effort). Contrast this with a scenario where the individual knows it is safe to let the leader know he or she has made a trust withdrawal. The individual may say, “I don’t think you realize how people interpreted your remarks. They are mad at you.” If this candor is rewarded by the leader, he might say, “I blew it this time, Bill. Thanks for leveling with me.” Such an exchange stops the withdrawal in the mind of the employee, and enables the leader to stop the withdrawal for the population. 

          No doubt leaders try to do the right thing (from their perspective) daily. If an employee asks why a leader is doing something, the leader tends to become defensive and push back, which becomes a withdrawal. Reinforcing candor requires someone to suppress their ego, recognize the trigger point, and modify their behavior to create the desired reaction. This is difficult to do because one usually justifies and defends their action.

          It takes great restraint and maturity to listen to the input and not clobber the other person. The more one practices, the easier this gets. Someone can quickly build a culture of trust and multiply the benefits threefold by focusing on their behavior. Once reinforcing candor is learned, something magical happens: that person gains greater power to build trust.



Robert Whipple MBA CPLP is the author of The TRUST Factor: Advanced Leadership for Professionals and, Understanding E-Body Language: Building Trust Online. Bob consults and speaks on these and other leadership topics. He is CEO of Leadergrow Inc., a company dedicated to growing leaders. Contact Bob at or