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Lessons from a Conman

Notorious conman Victor Lustig was inspired for his next great con while passing through France in 1925.

Lustig read a local Parisian newspaper article that noted the ever-increasing cost burden on Paris to maintain the then declining Eiffel Tower.

The report suggested that the people of Paris may eventually call for the removal of the Tower. After reading the article, Lustig saw an opportunity to “sell” the Eiffel Tower.

After forging some documents, Lustig invited a small collection of scrap metal dealers to a secret meeting at a luxury hotel.

At this meeting, he convinced the group that he, the “Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs,” was letting the group in on the confidential opportunity that the Parisian government would sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. Victor told them he was tasked with selecting the most honest scrap metal dealer to take ownership of the tower.

Lustig found his mark in Andre’ Poisson, a man looking to grow his status in the Parisian business community. Poisson ended up paying Lustig approximately 70,000 francs, in the form of a bribe, to secure the opportunity to own and scrap the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately for Poisson, Lustig skipped town and Poisson was left “towerless.”

From a distance, it is easy to judge Poisson for his naiveté.

How could someone believe they could buy the Eiffel Tower?

Successful conmen like Lustig implicitly understand something critical about the human brain. When people feel genuinely trusted with a secret, a connection chemical is released into the brain of the trustee: oxytocin. Known as the “bonding chemical,” oxytocin bonds people together relationally.

Robert C. Froemke, a neuroscientist who studies oxytocin, suggests oxytocin is like a “volume dial.” It turns up and amplifies brain activity related to people’s experiences. Oxytocin has the power to regulate pro-social behaviors when released into our brains in the right circumstances. Think about the good feeling you get when you are with people you care about. Those good feelings are a dose of oxytocin.

Lustig used the dark side of the connection chemical.

However, the good news is that leaders can apply this same chemical to develop and empower individuals within their organizations. When a leader demonstrates confidence in their employees, the connection chemical begins to flow. There is no more practical way to strengthen the trust with an employee than by sharing knowledge and responsibilities.

In my work with leaders, I often run into the delegation dilemma.

In many cases, a leader wants to develop their team members, but they are concerned that the team member will not perform the task to the same level of proficiency as the leader can. No leader wants to see a project fail. However, it is not a long-term sustainable growth strategy for a leader to hoard all knowledge and skill fearfully.

Instead, oxytocin is released through good delegation and knowledge sharing. Team bonds are strengthened, resulting in a healthier long-term organization. I often recommend that leaders consider the 80:20 rule of delegation. When an employee can perform a task at 80% proficiency, it is time to allow them to do so. The lacking 20% provides room for growth, something we have all experienced in our careers.

If you are a leader struggling with developing trust, I want to encourage you to make a delegation plan.

Within your plan, identify people who are at least 80% proficient at specific next-level tasks. Then set a meeting, offer resources and support, and let those connection chemicals flow.

Erik Dees is a partner with Milestone Leadership. This article was first published by Talk Business & Politics on March 30, 2022. Opinions expressed are those of the author.

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