Finding our way back to trust

Trust: Twenty Reliable Ways to Build a Better Country by David Johnston (Signal/McClelland & Stewart, 2018 222 pp, $22.95 US, $29.95 Canadian)


To call David Johnston’s life accomplishments impressive is an understatement.

A graduate of Harvard, Cambridge and Queen’s universities, Johnston has been a law professor, dean of the Queen’s law school, head of two Canadian universities, and Governor General of Canada (from 2010 to 2017). He has also written or co-authored numerous books.

If, as he hints in this thought-provoking volume, he is at age 77 “on the last leg of my life’s journey,” Trust may be his most enduring contribution to public discourse. Given the well-considered arguments he makes in this book, this reader hopes there will be many more to come.

Levels of trust in institutions, employers and governments have dipped dramatically in nations around the world.
The causes are many: Failure by employers and governments to keep promises, economic stagnation and rising inequalities brought on by globalization and technological disruption that eliminated entire industries. Then there is the instantaneous and constant flow of online information, which “has amplified our anger, stoked our fears, and indulged our pessimism.”

The erosion of trust is a serious issue, Johnston argues, because trust is the bedrock of democracy. “No problem is solved, no opportunity seized without trust among nations, trust between people and the institutions that are meant to serve and represent them, and above all trust among people.”

His book is a prescription for anyone who interacts with others, whether in a leadership role or not. The text is divided into three sections:
1) Make yourself worthy of trust. This discusses helpful attitudes, approaches and habits.
2)Build trust around you. Here Johnston outlines actions people can take to build trust, drawing on his rich and varied life experience to provide personal anecdotes.
3) Build a trustworthy and trusted country. Johnston reflects on ways of acting and thinking that democracies can use to be trusted by their own citizens as well as other nations and their citizens.

He warns leaders against empty listening, writing: “The job of a leader, if he or she is truly listening, is not descending from the mountaintop and presenting his or her organization with commandments carved in stone. A leader must also listen to the people whom that leader needs to make the organization work.”

Given the reality that trust arrives on foot but leaves in a Ferrari — a favorite saying of Bank of England governor Mark Carney — Johnston stresses the importance of acting consistently.
Companies need to focus on doing the right thing, not doing the thing right, he says, outlining the damage that Wells Fargo and VW did to their reputations by focusing on the latter instead of the former.

Johnston examines the reasons for the rise of populist movements, and the corrosive effect these have had on trust.
He notes that as Canadians have disengaged from traditional news sources, business leaders are seen to be the most authoritative voices. His view that a healthy and respected press is an important part of democracy leads him to provide recommendations for journalists, schools and other leaders on how to act to rebuild trust.

Refreshingly, Johnston references his own Anglican faith as his rock during life decisions. “Faith enables me to move beyond my individualism, and recognize my obligation to my community, country and world.”

Readers who live outside of Canada may find Johnston’s explanations of the Canadian political system somewhat involved. But the details of Johnston’s efforts to create, support and recognize numerous volunteer and philanthropic efforts during his seven years as governor general demonstrate that he practices what he preaches.
Well worth reading and pondering. -MS


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