“The Implosion of Trust” was the title of the Edelman “Trust Barometer,” an annual survey of the trust in global institutions presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos this January.

People everywhere are rejecting establishment leaders. Instead, they’re turning to populist outsiders with their promises to shake things up.

Brexit was about “taking back control” from European technocrats. Meanwhile, a vote for Trump was also a slap in the face for America’s conventional leadership class.

This worldwide anti-establishment mood made me keen to attend Edelman’s event.

Keynote speaker Richard Edelman spoke of a “profound crisis in trust.” I found three areas he covered particularly striking.

1. Leadership—in crisis

•  Trust in leaders of all kinds has declined. Leaders have authority but little influence.
•  Leaders aren’t getting through. Top-down, one-way communication means leaders aren’t connecting.
•  Ordinary people are more trusted than leaders. Horizontal communication—sharing information between peers—is gaining strength.

2. Mainstream Media—sidelined

•  Media registered the greatest decline in trust among all institutions last year.
•  More people now trust search engines than human editors.
•  Donald Trump won the presidency despite every news organization in the country declaring against him. In this election, “Fake News” became a major phenomenon.

3. The system—failing.

•  Ordinary people around the world dislike globalization and innovation because of the job losses they entail.
•  A conviction that “the system doesn’t work for me” has produced high levels of discontent in many countries.

The keynote speech was followed by a panel discussion. The panelists were leaders from finance, academia, technology and international institutions. Since the panel did not seem to share a sense of crisis about the new realities, I raised my hand as soon as the Q&A session began.

“I have a simple solution for leaders to regain trust. The best thing is for them to engage in dialogue with the public using open platforms. And the best such platform is social media. I wonder how many of you use social media? Further, I have a hypothesis that the level of trust leaders enjoy can be measured by the number of followers they have on social media, as it indicates the level of influence they have. What do you think?”

“Can you tweet your way to trust?” was the moderator’s sarcastic summary of my question.

It was the financier who answered.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I never use social media,” he said. “Tweeting is more likely to lead to trouble than to trust. Leadership shouldn’t get involved.”

Frankly, I was disappointed. In fact this answer highlighted one of the reasons why leaders are not trusted any longer. Leaders with no presence on social media have no voice and no influence. I sincerely believe that you cannot build trust in the digital age if you ignore new media platforms.

I accept that venturing onto social media has its unpleasant sides. But personal attacks, trolling and Twitter storms are the realities of contemporary public discourse. They’re just something you’ve got to deal with if you want to get your point of view across and to be trusted.

As a leader, I practice what I preach. I’m a very active commentator on social media. (In fact, despite doing most of my tweeting in Japanese, I ranked as one of the Top 5 most-followed business leaders at Davos.)  

Because I engage with the public like this, I know what issues people are most passionate about and can do my bit to shape public opinion and—I hope—detect and stop people from sliding into populism.

Major business leaders like Apple’s Tim Cook (4.13 million followers) and Softbank’s Masayoshi Son (2.51 million followers) certainly recognize the importance of social media engagement.

But the heads of B2C businesses like Apple and Softbank shouldn’t be the only leaders communicating directly with the public. It’s time for ALL LEADERS to accept that the best way to build trust is to engage in direct dialogue with the public. Standing aloof will only lead to widening social divisions.

So, leaders of the world, what would you prefer—a Twitter storm now or a real upheaval later?

You decide.

Photo copyright: eelnosiva

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