Trust: The Power of Vulnerability & Dissent

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Extracts from a talk given by Robert Phillips at The Marketing Academy‘s Inspire Live! conference, Google HQ, London, 6 April 2017

Central provocation & conference theme – 10 Superpowers Every Leader Needs

Trust is not a superpower. Nor is PR.

The crisis of trust is a crisis of leadership. To build greater trustworthiness, leaders should relinquish control, and think instead about vulnerability and dissent. In an activist future, consider CEOs as Chief Social Activists; CMOs as Chief Community Organisers; and organisations as potential social movements.

The age of superpower leadership is long-gone. CEOs need to “leave their capes at the door”.

The whistleblowing, digital age has also blown open the myth of institutional trust, where leaders, companies or brands – often propped up by PR – hid behind controlling hierarchies and told or sold us what to believe.



We need to stop talking about trust and start thinking about trustworthiness instead, based on principles of honesty, competence and reliability. New models of leadership, communications and engagement are required, together with new ways of working that embrace activism, radical honesty and transparency – and dissent. Activist business leadership can and should deal with the biggest issues of our time: social inclusion; social justice; climate change; affordability and shelter – in a real way, not through nonsense CSR. Leaders should build networks of co-workers and new eco-systems of organisations of like-mind, powered by digital. We can then place our trust for the future in real people with a shared commitment to the common good.

In an ultimate act of accountability to the employees, customers and stakeholders they serve, business leaders should be prepared to stand naked – an always-on commitment that places accountability over competitive, controlling and ultimately sterile measurement metrics.



Standing Naked: 6 thoughts to inspire marketing and communications in 2017:


“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a greater variety of morbid symptoms appear”

Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937)


When you think about Corbyn or Trump, Farage or Le Pen as the morbid symptoms of the interregnum, everything makes a lot more sense. In business, business models are collapsing; the analogue “old” is not yet fully dead, and the digital “new” is still not fully born. New models will be needed in the interregnum – in business, as in politics. These models need to be negotiated, not imposed.

“To live in freedom, one must grow used to a life full of agitation, change and danger”

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805 – 1859)


De Tocqueville helps us understand that embracing agitation, change and danger builds, not weakens, resilience. Think differently about risk. Stop trying to control, contain or mitigate it. Leaders need to make themselves as vulnerable to their employees, customers and stakeholders as those constituencies have traditionally been to them. Dissent is welcome because no one can learn if they do not listen. I call this ‘standing naked’.

This means: co-producing strategies and solutions; building generative dialogues; re-learning the ability to say sorry – being open, adaptive and creative.

Jericho’s work on Responsible Tax and Future of Work speak exactly to this model: activism, co-production, vulnerability and dissent. Communications through actions not words.


“We are all children of the Greeks”

Tony Judt (1948 – 2010)

Instinctively, as humans, we know that the values of Ancient Greece prevail – we need to do what is fair and right, tolerant & just to support human potential and build a better society. This is what we mean by common good.

We need to put citizens and society first. We will be more trusted if we enable human potential to flourish. Start by asking the right questions. Think about people and planet before you think about profit. Use the common good as your lodestar. Ask “is this fair, is this just, is this good, is this right?” And don’t buy ‘purpose’ from an ad agency. Co-produce it with wise crowds of employees, customers and stakeholders. Then it is properly shared.


“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”

George Orwell (1903 – 1950)


Truth and trust are two sides of the same coin. Marketers and communicators have a special responsibility. This is why I called bullshit on the bullshit industry of spin. This is why we cannot be bystanders as politicians and media peddle outright lies – the stakes are too high.

If we want to rebuild trust, then we need to re-discover truth.


“We measure everything that counts, except that which makes life worthwhile”

Robert Kennedy (1925 – 1968)


Finally, when it comes to trust and trustworthiness, compliance is a huge part of the problem – as is the obsession with measurement. Compliance culture is a hindrance to the common/ public good. Think about adopting a framework of human principles before imposing more bureaucracy, pointless targets and rules.


“Courage is the greatest of all virtues – if you haven’t courage, you may not have an opportunity to use any of the others”

Samuel Johnson (1709 -1784)


This is a time of agitation, change and danger. We must not try to force symmetrical solutions on asymmetrical problems. They won’t work. To build trust in the new normal, meet activism with activism. Embrace chaos and complexity. Welcome vulnerability and dissent – even risk. Co-produce strategies and ideas. Think in terms of social movements.

The fight for truth is real – we must show the moral courage to lead. Each one of us needs to do something – and then hope and optimism can defeat cynicism and despair.

To earn trust – even it it’s never going to be a superpower – we must all have the courage both to speak up and stand naked.

The 4th annual Inspire Live event gathered 200 leaders in the marketing industry. 100% of the money raised by the Inspire Live! conference is donated to support 18-24 apprentices who are not currently in work, education or training.


For help/ more information on leadership, ditching the superhero cape and standing naked, find out more here.

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