I'll never forget the most important meeting of my life — no matter how hard I try.
It was a teachable moment: one of those priceless experiences that instills humility, no matter how hard you fight it. That kind of lesson is best learned in essays and books. In real life, you pay retail.
It was my first serious lesson about inspiring trust — a subject that has become my life's passion and profession — and it was punch-in-the-face powerful. At the time of this meeting — back in 1997, shortly after I'd joined a national security agency that's focused on spying and counter-spying — I thought I knew everything about trust. But that belief, in and of itself, was a sure sign that I knew virtually nothing.
My fairy-tale belief system was based on my prior success as a young Marine officer, when I'd perceived the whole world as basically just an offshoot of the Marines, in which duty, honor, country, and trust comprised the rules of almost all conduct. The real world, I discovered on that fateful day in 1997, was ruled far less by codes of honor than by the code of let's-make-a-deal.
I didn't even know back then that deal-making could be every bit as honorable and productive as serving one's country — if it is governed by a system of decent, efficient, beneficial behavior that I have come to call the Code of Trust.
Without trust, I now know, the whole fabric of commerce, communication, and constructive effort unravels.
Unfortunately, at this current moment in time, trust is scarce as diamonds, and more valuable. It's at historically low levels in virtually every major element of American life: government, business, media, education, and even among families and social networks. It has declined — on average, in these key institutions — by approximately 60 percent since just the Great Recession. It was the key factor in the last presidential election, in which neither major candidate inspired trust in even 50 percent of the electorate, and it will probably be the single most valued quality in the next set of candidates.
People everywhere are now so wary that “Trust No One” is widely considered the savviest strategy of the new century. It's not. Lack of trust cripples large corporations and small families, and typically leaves people stranded, alone, and unsuccessful. In contrast, the presence of trust is golden. It's the elixir that makes teamwork easy, communication honest, optimism abundant, and the workplace profitable and pleasant.
Most important of all, trustworthiness is the single greatest quality for creating leadership.
After I formulated the Code of Trust and began to teach it in the public and private sectors — as the head of my agency's Behavioral Analysis Program — the quality of my life and career became vastly more rich and rewarding. I wasn't the only one who saw it as a game-changer. Many of the amazing people I met in this endeavor told me that they didn't fully understand the true nature of leadership until they implemented my system for inspiring trust.
I needed the system myself, because I'm not a natural born leader. The only way that I became the man that people now trust was to analyze every lesson I learned from the finest leaders around me, and characterize it, categorize it, prioritize it, test it, tweak it, and integrate it into the Code of Trust.
My lessons started in the streets of New York City, among spies and counterspies. If you can learn trust there, you can learn it anywhere.
The year of 1997 was a pivotal time in foreign affairs. The Cold War had ended, but it still had the potential, as simmering conflicts always do, to rage again —probably not as a military march toward mutually assured destruction, but as a battle for the true power of the twenty-first century: economic domination, backed by the dark swagger of limited but deadly engagements.
The new world order of that era had created both chaos and unlimited opportunity, with even less trust among the world's superpowers than now. No one knew where the countries of the newly disintegrated Soviet bloc were headed: to democracy, to dictatorship, to prosperity, to ruin, or to war. For America, it was a delicate tipping point in history, and it needed to be handled just right.
If the direction of American foreign affairs had been up to me — a fledgling agent working boots-on-the-ground, things would probably not have been handled right. Luckily, one of the greatest leaders I've ever known was with me at that critically important meeting, and I learned so much that at the end of that day I didn't even know how much I'd learned. It took me years to break down the basics of what happened.
We were developing information on an agent from a former Soviet bloc nation that we suspected of stealing secrets from the U.S. aerospace industry, and were meeting with an American who knew him. We had no reason to suspect collusion by the American — our "access agent," in spy lingo — but we still didn't want to tell him our agenda, because that might change his behavior, and alert the suspected spy.
"When our guy gets here," said my mentor, as we settled into a booth at a nice steak house, "I'm going to promise him that we'll finish this as quickly as possible."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because his time's valuable, and I'm grateful for it. This is about him, not us, so we've got to show respect."
"But we don't know him, so we have no reason to respect him."
"We'll find a reason. There's always a good reason to respect someone, and there's never a good reason to judge them. The next thing we'll do is ask him about himself, and figure out his context."
"Spy talk. It means, what kind of guy he is, where he's from, what he likes. And try to find something that we can do for him -- some favor -- anything that makes him feel appreciated. If he says something you disagree with, keep it to yourself. Let him take the lead, and don't try to force any agenda. We'll see what his interests and needs are, and then find goals we have in common."
My mentor told me to play it straight, with no manipulation, but at this time in my life, I thought everything he'd just said sounded like manipulation, and I told him so.
He shook his head hard, like a wet dog shaking off water. "It's just good manners," he said. "We don't judge people. We validate them for who they are, not for who we want them to be. That's how everybody wants to be treated. Besides, manipulation never works."
"Because people aren't stupid. You play them and they'll play you."
When our access agent arrived, we shook hands and my mentor said, “Robin's gotta pick up his daughter in about an hour, so we'll wrap this thing up before you even finish your steak.” I later learned that my mentor, Jesse, was establishing an artificial time constraint, to allow the access agent to feel more free and in control.
Jesse complimented the access agent — Steve, for our purposes here — about his expertise on Eastern European politics, and started asking very general questions that were very open-ended, which is the verbal equivalent of an ink-blot test.
Jesse asked him if he knew other people with similar knowledge, and Steve rattled off some names of several people — including our target. “I've heard of him,” Jesse said casually. But Steve seemed distracted, and Jesse switched the subject to personal matters. As soon as that happened, we learned the source of Steve's distraction: His wife wanted a divorce.
That subject is an easy one for guys to bond over, and that's what we did. For the rest of the meeting, we talked about family life, the painful logistics of breaking up, Steve's kids, and his plans. Steve's distraction melted, and he seemed genuinely grateful for our companionship.
As Steve warmed up, I tried to capitalize on the mood and steer the conversation back to our target. But Jesse gave me a look that said: Back off.
Jesse soon invoked my need to get my daughter as a signal that the meeting was over, and Steve actually seemed disappointed. “Keep in touch,” he said. “Let me know what you need. I'll do everything I can.”
As Steve walked away — without telling us anything of significance — I felt defeated. I'd come into the meeting full of myself — ready to be the next James Bond – but by the end of it I felt empty. I told my mentor that I was sorry the meeting hadn't been productive.
“It was very productive,” Jesse said.
“What did it produce?”
“Trust. That was our goal, wasn't it? Getting the next meeting?” The subsequent meetings, he said — all built on the foundation of trust — would yield the information we needed. “You seemed to learn so much today that I thought you knew that,” he said.
“I did learn a lot. I just don't know what it was.”
Now, twenty years later, I can see that he'd told me most of what I now know about trust. Without spelling it all out, I can say that most of the major points are in this one little anecdote. For many people, though, only one principle may stand out: To inspire trust, put others first.
That single, central action empowers all legendary leaders.
It is so grounded in common sense that — like other self-evident truths — it is often overlooked.
It's easy to lead people when you put their needs first, but it's almost impossible when you're only serving yourself.
If you adopt another person's goal as part of your goal, why shouldn't they follow your lead? If you don't, why should they?
This philosophy, though, goes against the grain of popular business and social culture, in which creating trust is often reduced to various forms of manipulation, and is typically referred to as “winning” trust, as if that sacred goal were a game.
Also, people assume — without thinking it through — that if they put others first, they'll get walked all over. They won't. Counterintuitive? Yes. But you'll see it's true when you try it.
If you invoke the philosophy of putting others first, that simple, sole act will serve as the foundation of your ascension to the role of a trusted leader.
That invocation is just the start. But it's a great start!
Robin Dreeke is the author of The Code of Trust: An American Counterintelligence Expert's Five Rules to Lead and Succeed, from which this article is adapted. You can reach him online at www.peopleformula.com, or by email at email@example.com,