At age 14, rather unhappily, I learned the difference between popularity and trust. My parents decided to let me follow the wheat harvest with one of the men in our Northwestern church. The wheat in the High Plains ripens in Texas in early June and then in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and by mid-July, South and North Dakota.
Because the boss was both a church leader and the father of a 14-year-old boy who was part of the 8-man crew, my parents presumed everything would be more than fine. My mom even said I would return "a real man" at summer's end.
The job had combines, big trucks, heavy chains, messy toolboxes, endless mechanical parts and bag upon bag of Red Man chewing tobacco. Throw into this mix me — a little red-headed, barely teenage boy with a straw cowboy hat who could still sing soprano in the church choir.
The first day after arriving in western Oklahoma we worked on the equipment. Screwing in a light bulb was the extent of my mechanical ability. I didn't know the difference between a box end wrench and a lunch box. It was obvious to the crew that the fence was soaking wet where my diapers hung.
Still, the boss took me under his wing and tried to be popular. He sang silly songs while dancing around, told stupid jokes and, well, kind of acted like a junior high kid. I liked him.
But that all stopped when the farm implements began mowing through the ripened wheat fields. The first day of harvesting an Oklahoma farmer's field, a chain broke on the combine that I was driving. When the boss climbed the stairs to where I was sitting on the stalled combine, he suddenly began yelling and swearing. He was 55 year old; I was 14. I froze. Until then, I had mostly seen this man smiling and passing the offering plates at our church.
And it got plenty worse. By sheer fortitude I somehow survived, week after week, though I missed my parents and baseball. Then one day in mid-July when we were moving our equipment from Valentine, Neb., to Winner, S.D., I nearly decided to hitchhike back to Kansas. Suddenly, one of the college kids on the crew wrecked the truck he was driving, completely destroying the truck and one of the combines and injuring himself.
There were several cases of beer on that truck. Before the frantic, confused boss tended to the crew member who had been transported to a Valentine, Neb., hospital, he directed his son and me to immediately throw all the beer into the weeds of a nearby creek.
Even though I complied, I thought of leaving the crew and hitchhiking home. But I thought my dad would kill me if I did that. So I stayed. Somehow the boss regained his composure and secured another truck and combine. The injured crew member was released from the hospital with minor injuries.
Determined to push ahead, the boss actually drove his son and me out to the creek where we had pitched the beer only a day before. He asked us to retrieve what we could. "A man's got to have a little solace," he told us.
What I thought was going to be a summer where an older man would take me under his wing, showing me how to be a man, turned out to be a summer where I lost respect for a popular church leader.
This man — now with the Lord and long ago completely forgiven by me — reminds me of some leaders I've encountered who try to take people places — even worthy places — believing people will follow based on their popularity as a leader. But they soon discover that people don't follow because the leader hasn't developed enough trust. Misunderstanding the crucial need for trust dramatically damages a leader's performance. This especially is true for newer leaders.
Some leaders erroneously assume they are trusted because they are popular. They couldn't be more wrong. The leader may be popular, just as my first boss initially was with me when he took me under his wing and told silly jokes. Sadly, that did not translate into trust.
In leadership, popularity has some importance. It is easier to follow a leader we like personally. But popularity may be merely temporary. It easily can be altered by current successes or disappointments. Because popularity mostly is built on people's emotions — whether good or bad — it can cause followers to cheer or to jeer.
When my first boss, a church deacon, made me walk out into a weed patch to retrieve his beer, I lost complete trust in the man. I was a naive 14-year-old, but I could see through him. Real trust, earned with time and experience, can and should evoke a deep level of loyalty and commitment. That's how people weather the storms of life together. Trust develops roots in a relationship that grows far deeper than popularity ever could.
Popularity can disguise itself as trust when people appear to be agreeing with you. It may fool you into thinking you can do anything. After all, you are popular. But if leaders cross a line of people's level of trust, a backlash toward their leadership quickly follows.
There is a clear, discernible difference between popularity and trust. "Now there's a person you can trust," is a compliment to which all leaders should eagerly aspire.
Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via http://www.pastortopastorinitiatives.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter at @donfollis.