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I was talking with a friend of mine who is a funeral director the other day and the subject of ties came up. He was wearing one; I wasn’t.

“I’m starting to resent it,” he said with a big smile on his face. “I went to the bank and the banker wasn’t wearing a tie. I saw my lawyer and he didn’t have a tie on either. I think I’m about the only person who still has to wear a tie and I’m starting to resent it.” I was glad to see he was still smiling.

“I’ve noticed that too,” I agreed. “A lot of CEOs go on television with open collars. Even the Republican presidential candidates often appear without ties. I’m starting to think the only people who wear ties anymore are NFL owners -- who apparently can’t get admitted into their own stadiums on game day without white shirts and ties.

“And then there are the preachers who appear on TV presiding over big congregations,” I added. “Some of them are wearing jeans. You know, when I mentioned that to someone who is pretty savvy about such things, he declared: ‘That’s right – and it’s no accident.’”

Don’t get me wrong: I like the trend toward great informality. My goal is to live where the bankers wear short pants to work. But my own bias aside, we have to ask: What gives with this widespread rejection of formality and an embrace of symbols that supposedly bring our leaders up close and personal?

The answer might be found in the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, an authoritative survey of people in 28 countries that we discussed briefly in last week’s Catholic Leader when we noted that:

  • the gap in trust of government, business and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) between the general population and the most informed segment of society has grown to a record level;
  • of the four types of organizations, government is trusted the least; and,
  • the criteria for trusting CEOs varies around the world – but honesty is consistently among the most important criteria.

Rush to informality

There’s another aspect of the study that bears examination – and helps explain the rush to informality in business, government and other sectors of the economy: The Inversion of Influence.

According to the Edelman survey, there’s been a glacial change in the way influence is obtained and exercised around the world – and since leadership is an influence process, this change would seem to have incalculable effect on how leadership is obtained and exercised in our world today.

The movement toward less formal dress is probably the least important dimension of this change, but it points to a deeper reality. To exercise influence in the general population today, it helps if you are perceived as an ordinary member of the masses rather than a prestigious member of an elite.

The “Power Distance Index” between leaders and followers, once significant and embraced by both factions, has all but disappeared.

Old and new models

In the old model of influence, there were three widely-held assumptions:

  • elites – those with more education and positional power – had access to more and better information;
  • the interest of elites interconnected with those of the general population; and
  • becoming part of an elite was open to all.

In such an environment, it was not a huge stretch to trust traditional leaders with positional power.

In the new model of influence, these assumptions are displaced by three very different ones:

  • peer-to-peer influence is more powerful than top-down influence;
  • there is increasing distrust among the general population; and
  • there is a rise in mass movements based on dissatisfaction and urgency.

The Edelman Trust Barometer attributes this change to three forces at work in societies around the world:

  • the increased supply and democratization of information;
  • high-profile revelations of greed and misbehavior among those in traditional leadership positions; and,
  • income inequality.

“We must get beyond ‘The Grand Illusion’ that the mass will continue to follow the elites,” said Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman. “The trust of the mass population can no longer be taken for granted.”

Who we trust

It’s always been true that the most trustworthy source of information has been word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and family. And that continues to be true today. The 2016 study, which reports data obtained in 2015, shows that friends and family are the sources we trust most – and that’s risen from 67% to 78% in the past year.

Also trusted by a majority of respondents are academic experts (65%), companies that people patronize (62%) and employees of a company (55%).

Who we don’t trust

In contrast, CEOs are trusted by only 49% of the general population and journalists by only 44% -- the only category in 10 where trust declined from 2015 to 2016. Perhaps a consolation: journalists were trusted by a greater percentage of people than celebrities (32%).

Edelman says of its survey results:

In sync with the emergence of a widening trust gap, the traditional pyramid of influence — with elites on top — has been up-ended. Today, influence decidedly rests in the hands of the mass population. The net result is a new phenomenon where the most influential segment of the population (or 85 percent of the population) is at the same time the least trusting.

This reality stems from the fact that “a person like yourself,” or an average employee, is far more trusted than a CEO or government official.

The widening gulf is directly linked to income inequality. A double-digit trust gap between high-income and low-income respondents is present in nearly two-thirds of the countries, with the U.S. (31 points), France (29 points) and Brazil (26 points) exhibiting the largest disparities.

In the past, it seems, people in the general population who were not members of an elite nevertheless tended to trust, listen to, aspire to and follow the leadership of social elites distinguished by their money, power or education.

Today that’s less true – and perhaps it has something to do with aspirations. As Edelman explains:

There are also diminished future expectations among the mass population. In more than two-thirds of the nations surveyed, less than half of the respondents believe they will be better off in five years’ time.

One of my concerns about this general decline in trust – and especially in the trust of society’s traditional leaders – is that it may be part of a broader decline in trust of culture. After all, if you can’t trust those in traditional leadership roles, why trust the conclusions they’ve reached over time about ethics, morality and appropriate behavior of all kinds?

As a Child of the 60s, I’m as skeptical as anyone about entrenched claims of virtue and self-righteousness. However, people who can’t trust anyone beyond their own peer groups run the very real danger of devaluing the learning that culture has accumulated across the centuries – often at great cost.

The history of human culture is largely progressive -- marked by the constant accumulation of knowledge and wisdom across the centuries so that none of us has to start learning from scratch, from a base of zero, where we would begin without language, an alphabet or a system of numbers. Of course, as we learn more, some knowledge turns out to be wrong and has to be discarded. But even then, it’s new and better learning that drives out the old.

Human history has also been marked by a mostly progressive extension of trust – from the person sitting next to you, most likely family, to partners in commerce on the other side of the world. Without the trust systems of currency and later of credit, our way of life would be as unspeakably primitive as our span of life would be short. Without trust in learning across national and ethnic lines, the body of human knowledge would be severely impoverished.

If trust sufficiently erodes at the societal level, expertise loses its influence in the same way exploitation should lose its sway. One person’s opinion is as valued – and thus as valuable – as the next. The idiot and the genius are indistinguishable. When it comes to learning, it’s every person for oneself.

Although the term is in some dispute among intellectuals today, Western Civilization experienced a period popularly called the Dark Ages, which lasted roughly 500 to 1,000 years, during which many of the hallmarks of civilization, including learning and commerce, seemed to draw in and constrict on themselves, in some cases nearly disappearing altogether.

Could we be slipping toward another Dark Age -- this one brought on by the erosion of trust required for humanity to function across the large scales characteristic of modern civilization?

We’re a long way from that. And history’s unfolding has turned most seers into jesters. But the decline in our trust of society’s traditional influencers strikes me as a clarion call for better leaders and forms of leadership.

In the final analysis it’s not about ties or jeans. It’s about growing leaders who are worthy of trust, day in and day out, in good times and bad. We have to cultivate leaders who are true Servants, Stewards and Shepherds – people who lead like Jesus.

And it seems to me the place for us to start is with ourselves.

 

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