Trust and Leadership

When we’re talking about consensual sex between two people who work together, it’s often tempting to just leave it alone and keep quiet about it. But we’ve already seen the risks involved with that in our previous two posts of this series (part 1part 2), haven’t we? As much as we’d love to go ahead and give you permission — ‘Hey, you’re both adults, and if you’re on the same page, knock yourself out!’ — the issue isn’t nearly so simple.

Again, Dachner Keltner from The Power Paradox:

Our influence, the lasting difference that we make in the world, is ultimately only as good as what others think of us. Having enduring power is a privilege that depends on other people continuing to give it to us.
Source: Ronald Heifetz (1994): Leadership without easy answers. Own image.

Source: Ronald Heifetz (1994): Leadership without easy answers. Own image.

This runs counter to the Machiavellian myth about power that most people believe: that it is seized, either through force, intimidation, or deceit. If you’ve fought your way to the top using those methods, leaving a trail of carnage in your wake, sooner or later you will get taken out by someone else who’s playing the same game. Seizing and holding position of power comes to take precedence over meaningful leadership, and the whole community suffers for it.

In functioning groups, power is not seized. It is granted. Professor Ron Heifetz talks more about this interplay in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers:

Authorities serve as repositories for our worries and aspirations, holding them, if they can, in exchange for the powers we give them… we construct a network of appropriate dependencies based on a realistic appraisal of what we and others can provide… manager and subordinate depend on each other.

If we want to sustain our influence in service of our cause, if we truly want to be a leader and not simply a dictator, we can’t rely on fear and force. We must rely on trust. People trust you when they see things like your authenticity, your commitment, and your willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work. So long as you play your role well, they will continue to allow you to lead.

But if you have sex with someone who works for you, you will inevitably risk breaking the trust you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Sex and Scandal


Even if no one else actually knows about your affair, the private emotional dynamics of your relationship will be amplified and distorted by the public demands of the group. Emotional entanglements will inevitably bubble up into the open, playing out in both subtle and dramatic ways through body language, eye contact, favoritism, and relational tension. Your work will suffer, and by extension, your credibility as a leader will dwindle, because you’re now devoting a significant amount of energy to managing this secret relationship when you should be attending to the needs of your team and the aims of your collective work.

And let’s be honest: sooner or later, people are going to figure it out! It’s exceedingly rare for any secret to stay buried for long in a close-knit group. Actions that you think of as clever or discreet — the quick glance, the quiet smile, the private meeting — will be patently obvious to anyone paying attention.

And when you’re the leader, people are always paying attention. Your every action is under the microscope. People are looking to you for cues about where the organization is headed, and, in some cases, they’re looking for excuses to undermine your credibility if they don’t like where it’s headed. When your private relationship becomes the subject of public gossip, it distracts people from their work, wasting precious time and energy, and, depending on the details, can produce a scandal that forces you out from the leadership role you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Navigating these waters takes patience, compassion, self-awareness, and a deep commitment to a higher purpose.

Join us next week for the final part in our four-part series as we explore how to hold steady when faced with the temptations and risks of workplace intimacy.



Elisabeth Heid and Michael Koehler