There can be no denying that definitions of leadership have and continue to vary tremendously . Despite the definitional differences, in the instances where leadership is mentioned when referring to organisations, governments or individuals, the definition is rarely clarified. Therefore, in order to discuss trust in leadership, it is important to clarify my understanding of leadership, its purpose and how it is distinct from leaders.

Leadership is a process. The process includes a leader and followers in a given situation who undergo a process. This process leads to an outcome which changes the situation in which that leader operates. Once a particular outcome has been obtained, and the situation changes, either the leader needs to adapt his/her leadership style in order to respond to the new situational needs or a new leader needs to emerge who is better able to respond to those new situational needs. The purpose of leadership is therefore to achieve a particular goal which was collectively decided upon. Leaders are just one component of that process. They are an integral component but one component nonetheless. Without followers, leaders cannot and will not exist. In addition, if the individual who is on top of a vertical hierarchy of authority is not able to respond to the situationally dependent needs of followers, technically, they are not exercising leadership. One of the benefits of recognising leadership as being a process, is that the system is able to recognise that a leader can emerge from any position within society or an organisation if the situation arises. It, therefore, increases the likelihood of innovation and fresh ideas and approaches being incorporated into otherwise rigid systems.

While formal leadership studies has, more often than not, been applied to organisations, understanding the leadership process in political systems is equally important. In order for a leader to remain credible, they are obliged to respond to the needs of their followers in a given situation. Distrust in leaders is a result of leaders being unable or unwilling to meet the needs of their followers and/or do not allow for the emergence of a more capable leader. Distrust in leadership results when followers no longer believe that the system through which leaders emerge is capable of providing them with competent and responsive leaders. There is, therefore, a complete breakdown in the leadership process.

One situation where this becomes particularly relevant is peace negotiations or the selection of leaders rather than the election of leaders. South Sudan is a prime example of the failure of the leadership process and a distrust in leadership. Simplifying the story quite substantially, without a countrywide discussion of the type of country/government the people wanted, leaders were selected during the peace process. However, those “leaders” (SalvaKiir and RiekMashar) did not meet the needs of the people of the country. Instead of building a nation through the leadership process, they were unable and/or unwilling to respond to the needs of citizens of South Sudan. As a result, fighting erupted once again in the capital of Juba in July 2016. The peace which has been ‘declared’ remains fragile and thousands of refugees continue to flock to neighbouring countries in search of safety.

Trust in leadership by followers needs to be earned by the leaders who have emerged to respond to a particular situation. If leaders are unable to respond to those needs, trust in that leader cannot be guaranteed and if the leadership process is unable to respond to the need for a new leader, trust from followers cannot be expected. Leadership is an interaction between leaders and followers and in order for trust to be ensured, that relationship needs to be respected from both the leader and the followers.

Photo Credit: See http://www.nairobibusinessmonthly.com/companies/leaders-and-followers/