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By Joshua Hayman, associate, Legitimate Leadership.

In our introductory programmes one of the issues we work through is the idea of the Intent test.  Legitimate Leadership argues that the only real measure we have of whether we can trust someone is whether they are able to suspend their agenda for ours; whether they are able to set aside their self-interest, and act instead in ours.  It is on this basis alone that trust is granted or withheld and, in the leadership relationship, the manager is seen to be worthy of support, or not.

So what does it mean to pass the intent test?  Consider the following situations:

  • A lead has arisen that could lead to an important sale for your business.  You have two sales people you can assign the work to.  Jill is your top sales performer and realistically has the best chance of securing the deal.  Andrew is a good sales performer, and giving this deal to him will stretch his ability and he will have gained some much needed experience in pursuing the opportunity.  His prospects of success are not as good as Jill’s.  Who do you give the opportunity to?
  • You are in your office, and Lindiwe comes in to ask for help on an important piece of work.  You are listening to her problem when your phone, which is lying on the desk, beeps.  It is a WhatsApp from your boss. You are waiting on a reply to a request you’d sent him earlier in the day.  Do you read the message or carry on the conversation with Lindiwe?
  • Your boss calls you in a rage.  She has just seen one of your subordinates arriving at work an hour late, and demands that you discipline her for late coming. Poor punctuality is a pet hate of your boss, and something she is very intolerant of.  Further, your boss as a reputation for being inflexible once she has made a decision – she does not change her mind easily.  You don’t yet know why the subordinate was late.  How do you respond?
  • It is 8:30 in the morning, and you have a critical meeting starting in 30 minutes, at which you have to give a presentation on the quarterly results.  You spent many hours on the presentation, and somehow lost the work.  You’ve been at the office since 6am reconstructing what you lost, and are almost done, save for some of the finishing touches.  You have completely forgotten that you agreed to a brief discussion regarding some personal difficulty your staff member has been having, and he wants to give you an update. He has arrived at your office on time. What do you say to him?

These are 4 simple examples of countless interactions that happen between a leader and his/her staff every week, and every one of them is a test.  It would be understandable if you gave the deal to Jill, read the message from your boss, disciplined your subordinate because “the boss said I must”, and told your staff member “now is not a good time”.  In each case, giving in to self-interest at the expense of the other means failing the intent test, and acting contrary to the value required in each situation.

Can we suspend self-interest every time? Admittedly, it is very difficult to do so.  The granting and withholding of trust is an incremental process, and in each small interaction a little trust is either granted or withheld when we pass or fail.

Our subordinates perceive the pattern – does the boss strive to put my interests first, or is the boss mostly concerned with his/her own interests. The leader who over time works to look after the interests of others builds trust.  This leader does not necessarily pass the test every time, but demonstrates to his or her people that his motive is firmly to strive to do so.

Significant tests of intent most often take place in the face of significant life events like death, divorce, illness, marriage, the birth of a child. These however do not come along very often.  Each interaction we have with the people around us is an opportunity to either build trust or erode trust.

Making the conscious choice to give rather than take by putting the interests of others first results in more decisions in the interests of others than oneself.