The Most Valuable Resource

As the third largest economy in the world, Japan seems to have beat the odds. Japan is a country with next to zero natural resources. It is devoid of oil fields, diamond mines, coal and other natural energy sources. And, it  is immediately apparent from the ubiquitous shopping malls, high end fashion and pristine…everything, that Japan’s economy fairly strong. It is not immediately apparent why Japan, a nation that is so poor in natural resources is so rich, but after months of experiencing Japan, it hit me; Japan is rich in a resource that most other nations lack: Trust.

It was the bottom of the 5th inning and the Tokyo Giants’ clean up hitter (an American) just struck out (for the second time. He would go on to strike out two more times before the 9th). At that moment, as occurs in every beer-filled stadium around the globe, a man popped up and raced to the bathroom. As he sped down the stairs from the nosebleeds (where I sat), his phone and wallet slipped out of his back pocket, unbeknownst to him. Like clockwork, the four people closest to the fallen goods jumped into action, collecting the man’s valuables. The two who picked up the fallen goods proceeded to race down the stairs after the man. Eventually, they caught up with him and a seemingly ridiculous amount of bows were exchanged, along with the man’s cell phone and wallet.

I share the above anecdote to illustrate that Japan is a very safe country. The level of trust that the Japanese exhibit towards each other and foreigners is something that has struck me as unique many times. Every day, in every Japanese city I explored, children as young as 6-years old walk home from school and/or take the metro by themselves. No chaperone, nanny or helicopter parent in sight ensuring safe passage. The high degree of trust in Japan is beautiful, and curious to an outsider.

Japan has a history of isolationism, which brewed a culture that is proud and remains intact. White supremacists of many stripes revere Japan because, in their twisted  minds, Japan is the model they point to when discussing an ethnically homogeneous society. To their credit, Japan works. I will give them that, but I do not believe for a second that racial homogeneity is the key to trusting your fellow citizenry.

Trust is one of those words like “Leadership.” It means everything and nothing. It means something different to me than it does you. There are libraries full of leadership books, most espousing a different theory, approach, model, or definition.. The only thing they likely have in common is that most of them are caricatured by Dilbert comics. When we really get to the bottom of what trust means, we find it is comprised of four elements.We are able to trust others when they act with one or more of the following traits:

  • Sincerity: the assessment that you are honest, that you say what you mean and mean what you say; you can be believed and taken seriously. It also means when you express an opinion it is valid, useful, and is backed up by sound thinking and evidence. Finally, it means that your actions will align with your words.

  • Reliability: the assessment that you meet the commitments you make, that you keep your promises.

  • Competence: the assessment that you have the ability to do what you are doing or propose to do. In the workplace, this usually means your co-worker  believes you have the requisite capacity, skill, knowledge, and resources to do a particular task or job.

  • Care: the assessment that you have the other person’s interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take actions. Of the four assessments of trustworthiness, care is in some ways the most important for building lasting trust.

Japanese people exhibit many of these traits through their words, but more importantly, their actions. Consider the meme of “Japanese Craftsmanship.” From knives to Toyotas to public transit to denim, Japanese-made goods are reliable, exhibit a high attention to detail (i.e. care), and are best of class (i.e. highly competent). It should come as no surprise that these goods are physical manifestations of deeply ingrained cultural values. Values that have been learned, honed and passed down through the ages.

Of course, Japan has corruption, crime, liars, cheaters and nerdowells. They are human too. No country escapes having some bad draft picks, but dishonesty is not a common trait of their culture. Now let’s turn to Venezuela,  Brazil, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo; countries so rich in natural resources, yet fraught with tremendous economic and political challenges over the last decades. It is hard to measure corruption, even harder to measure trust, but the later is fundamental to building healthy economies, countries and relationships. To be corrupt is easy and cowardly. To be truthful and to trust is an act of courage.  Holding out your hand in trust invites others to reciprocate - is simultaneously an act of vulnerability, courage, and invites others to do the same.

Whether your mission is to make a huge profit, build a sustainable organization or foster a healthy family, trust must be the foundation. As we proceed into this upcoming election season, the next natural disaster, the next excuse for division, I encourage you to lead with trust, not the trust of naivete - but the trust of courage.

For more tools to develop trust, I encourage you to check out: The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, by Charles Feltman.