Developing Trust: Leadership and a New Kitten

My son went to Atlanta to visit his sister, and when he returned he brought a pitifully skinny street kitten home with him.  The cat, now named Jasper (Holstein, I added, since he’s black and white), is underwriting the vet’s next vacation at my expense, but has managed to gain 2 pounds in a month, which is 50% more than his original 4 pounds!

Jasper Holstein bonded with my son Isaac immediately.  I’ve heard that cats always do that with the people who rescue them.  I don’t know.  Trust was instant, and certain.  Slower with the rest of us.  I’ve watched Jasper developing trust with my other two cats.

Pumpkin Jack, an orange tabby who was a local street kitten until my female cat brought him to us last Hallowe’en, is still young enough to play with him, at Jasper’s unrelenting insistence.  Jack still doesn’t completely trust Jasper, but Jasper flings himself at Jack with complete abandon, legs and arms splayed, vital organs completely exposed.  Total trust.  Jack is more cautious.  Jasper is still young, but he’s big enough to hurt.  All his little sharpies are in good working order.  Jack chases and allows chasing, but when Jasper pounces,  Jack growls and spits and hisses.  Jasper then jumps a couple of feet straight in the air, and walks away.  “No problem.  I’ll be back.”

The other kitty, Yoda, a Siamese who also came to us as a pitiful lost kitten a few years ago, covered with kerosene, his ears full of mites and held painfully at half mast, still suffers from some of the ill effects of his weeks on the street.  One is blindness.  At first Jasper jumped on Yoda the same way he did on Jack.  He learned quickly that that wouldn’t work with Yoda.  Yoda would just sit down, close his eyes, move his ears to half mast and wait for Jasper to give up.  If Jasper jumped on Yoda while Yoda was walking across the floor, Yoda would just wear him like a fur stole, and keep on going.

So since playing didn’t work, Jasper grooms Yoda.  Jumps on him and licks him all over.  Like he’s Yoda’s tiny mother.  He interacts with the two big cats in completely different ways, but he appears to trust them both completely.  And he seems to have made them trust him.  He started curling up to sit and sleep with them after just a day or two.

And then there’s me.  One of the things that most irritates me about a cat is if it runs and hides from me.  I’m not as fast as I used to be.  It’s hard for me to get a cat that runs from me.  And Jasper is quick.  He can dart out a door in a heartbeat!  But the endearing quality of this little kitty is that he doesn’t run away.  He darts out, but he allows himself to be retrieved.

We talk about how to develop trust a lot in our leadership programs.  Especially the question comes up of how to re-establish it after it has been broken.  I know humans are not completely like animals.  (This is a hypothesis, of course.  The evidence is still out.)  But there are some lessons here from Jasper.

Jasper certainly had plenty of reasons not to trust.  He had had a rough time of it until Isaac rescued him.  He could have fallen back on any of these reasons as an excuse not to trust, but he didn’t.  He gave everyone, including even the veterinarian, a fresh chance.  There was no cynicism in this small cat.  Even starving, he never growled at the other cats or fussed.  He was glad to get whatever he could from anyone, and he strategically figured out what the best way was to fit in.  He made no unreasonable demands on anyone.  He figured out how to serve each one.  He runs from Jack, but he doesn’t run from me.  He holds Yoda down to groom him, but he doesn’t try to hold Jack down.  He chases Jack but he doesn’t chase Yoda.

So we need to give one another fresh chances too.  We need to let go of cynicism and find ways to serve one another.  We need to make an effort to understand one another as individuals.  We need to figure out ways to fit in and be useful instead of throwing our weight around and making unreasonable demands.  Trust is a bit elusive, but I think if we are trustworthy ourselves, that is the first step.

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About Talula Cartwright

Talula is a senior faculty member at CCL where she has managed both projects and programs. Talula trains the Center’s flagship offering, the Leadership Development Program (LDP)®, Foundations of Leadership, Coaching for Development, The Looking Glass Experience, and The Women’s Leadership Program. She uses her experience in executive and management development to design and deliver custom programs for Center clients in the corporate, private, and nonprofit sectors. She is a certified feedback specialist and executive coach.
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