Trust Is the New Leadership In A Flat World

Thomas Friedman’s book The World is Flat is an absurdly great best-seller.

It was a best-seller when printed in 2005, and as of today it’s still ranked #112 on Amazon. That’s a lotta bananas.

I don’t recall if Friedman ever defines “flat”—but it is an apt adjective.

“Flat” conveys the sense of “level playing field,” as in markets opening up to competitors from everywhere. It suggests a levelling of wages and prices, for the same reason. And it certainly conveys the feeling of lots and lots of interaction between buyers and sellers.

But enough about Friedman. Here’s what “flat” says to me.

Business used to be about stable, vertically organized, fire-walled, corporate entities—which competed against each other. That was business.

Not any more.

In the “flat” world, we don’t have corporations—we have supply chains. The vast majority of the auto industry’s costs are purchased costs. I’m told that when Tata set out to design a sub-$2500 car, they didn’t call a company meeting—they called a supply chain meeting.

The old job of leaders and managers—to organize (largely hierarchical) efforts within the walls of the Good Ole Corporation—is disappearing.

The new job is being done by supply chain managers, customer relationship managers, key account sales managers, and field engineers.

And that new job is not about directing people over whom you have control—it is about influencing those over whom you have absolutely no control whatsoever.

Trust is the new leadership.

It’s no longer about how you measure, motivate and inspire those beneath you or with the same W-2 form as you. It’s about how you connect with, help, and serve those with whom you interact in the Great Outside World.

Trust is the new leadership.

It’s no longer about how you help those who depend on you. It’s about how you help those on whom you depend.

And there’s the rub. Our old leadership models were internal; it was OK to help your people—after all, you all worked for Good Ole Corp.

But in old-think strategy, the customer and the supplier are your competitors too (think Five Forces model). Don’t share your cost information; contract for everything; you get what you bargain for; check with the lawyers.

In a flat world, old-think strategy runs smack up against new-think leadership.

In a flat world, you actually have to trust your supply chain. Your supply chain is your friend, not your enemy.

It’s no mistake Davos this year was all about collaboration. Collaboration is the new competition.

And trust is the new leadership.

Like old “internal” leadership, it comes with a paradox. If you focus on serving others, you will be served yourself. But if you set out to serve yourself by the “means” of serving others, you will be found out.

5 replies
  1. Lisa Anderson
    Lisa Anderson says:

    Fascinating concept–"Trust is the new leadership."  That’s great!! And I think especially in the internet age that is a powerful concept. Without the face-to-face contact of brick-and-mortar businesses, we must find other ways to build trust.

  2. Merv Giles
    Merv Giles says:

    In my experience in selling, trust is built from face to face – we as human beings trust faces, NOT EMAILS. There is a selling  point of difference in this electronically connnected world, in facing rather than emailing. 


  3. Skip Shuda
    Skip Shuda says:


    Thank you!  Thank you!  We need more evangelists to help debunk old world views like "Information is power" and "Its not what you know, its who  you know".  

    To operate in today’s flat world effectively, Trust becomes central to create effective relationships.  We’ve moved out of the Information Age and into the Creative Age… and Collaboration and Trust are front and center replacing Competition and Proprietary Knowledge.

    Well done.

    – Skip

  4. Merv Giles
    Merv Giles says:

    Daniel Pink talks about an age in which right brain thinking becomes a more integral part of our lives, business and otherwise. With this comes the need for connection – and therefore trust.

    I was aksed the other day to provide feedback to management abour our market point of difference – in a competitive mature transport market, my message –  "it is not so much our offer, but our people, train them, support them, give the tools to be trusted by our customers", Cheers – Merv


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