On a rainy night in Edwardian London, the opera patrons are waiting under the arches of Covent Gardens for cabs, when a little Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, runs into a young man called Freddy. She admonishes him for spilling her bunches of violets in the mud, but cheers up after selling one to an older gentleman (Colonel Pickering). She really gets angry when she sees another man copying down her speech – the man, Henry Higgins, explains that he studies phonetics and can identify anyone’s origin by an accent. He laments Eliza’s dreadful accent and declares that in six months he could turn Eliza into a lady by teaching her to speak properly – after serious and repetitive tuition, there is success and she passes the test at the Embassy Ball. Pickering flatters Higgins about his triumph and Higgins expresses his pleasure that the “experiment” is now over. The episode leaves Eliza feeling used and abandoned, ignored and confused. Unsure of her feelings for Higgins and Freddy, of her “new status” as a lady in her old environment and her need to be wanted for who she is, she finally returns to Higgins, the story ending on an ambiguous moment of possible reconciliation between teacher and pupil as Higgins slouches and asks: “Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”

Of course, the above synopsis is about the famous show, My Fair Lady, a musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, and premiering on Broadway in March 1956. The story pointedly speaks to the rigid British class system of the day, women’s independence, love, trust, intrigue and so on. In terms of high-trust leadership, perhaps two of the many lessons that can be learnt from the story should be highlighted here:

  • Walk the talk – behaviour should be aligned to the principles that the leader espouses. Freddie spoke about love for Eliza, but didn’t do anything about it. His behaviour didn’t correspond to what he was saying. So Eliza sang (somewhat disparagingly) to Freddie: “Don’t talk of stars burning above: if you’re in love, show me!” Eliza didn’t want words, she wanted demonstrative behaviour. The leader needs to show through actions – even more than words – clear demonstrative behaviour that aligns to the principles that fit with the company’s and his/her own mission and values. “People don’t listen to you speak; they watch your feet” (Anonymous)
  • Extend trust – offer the gift of trust to people. According to Greek mythology, Pygmalion, the king of Cyprus, carved an ivory statue of an ideal woman, naming her Galatea. She was so beautiful that Pygmalion fell in love with her and because of his deep desire and will for her to be real, with the help of the goddess Venus, he was able to bring her to life and they lived happily ever after. My Fair Lady is a modern Pygmalion story in which a speech professor’s expectations become the catalyst that inspired the transformation of a Cockney flower girl into a lady. Extending trust means that one believes in people – in their potential, their creativity and their giftedness. When one expects more, one tends to get more. People develop as trust is extended.

The leader’s credibility, competency and character are always under the spotlight. High-trust leadership evolves as the manager learns how to interact with employees in ways that increase trust and avoids interacting in ways that destroy it. Without trust, leadership will be ineffective.

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