Trust and Leadership

Business handshake“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”  Nelson Mandella

I have experienced several situations lately where leaders have destroyed the trust people had in them.  Given my recent experiences, I became curious about the nature of trust – the behaviors that create it, and those that don’t.  I ran across an article written by Glen Llopis, a contributor to Forbes magazine, that allowed me to reflect on my own experience with trust as it relates to leadership.

Trust is one of those ‘foundational’ pieces of being human that determines so much about the quality of our relationships, whether at work or in our personal lives.  It can take a long time to create, and no time to destroy; once lost it can be very difficult to regain.

Our exploration of trust is intended to encourage your own exploration of the behaviors that help people trust you, and those that don’t.  I hope you find the writing useful

Be well and do your best work,


Why Employees Don’t Trust Their Leaders

Nelson Mandella was one of the most trusted leaders of our time.  He lived out his purpose to support peace, unity and prosperity throughout the world.  He often demonstrated what seemed impossible for other leaders.

The ‘uncertainty’ of many of our environments today creates great challenge, and the inconsistency in leaders’ response to the uncertainty is killing trust.  Llopis says, “Employees want to be informed of any change management efforts before – not after the fact.  Employees desire to know what is expected of them and be given the opportunity to reinvent themselves, rather than be told they are not qualified for new roles and responsibilities and can no longer execute their functions successfully.”  Later, he states, “…many leaders are operating in survival mode and don’t have the sphere of influence they once had; without leaders to sponsor and mentor them, high-potential employees must now figure out the changing terrain on their own.”

If many of us are operating in survival mode, that means we are operating far below where we need to be, and may help explain some of the loss of trust we experience.  Leaders are often challenged by how much information they should share.  Part of the problem is we don’t often think of it from the employee’s perspective.  If we aren’t creating more clarity by our information, then we are likely opening the door to issues of distrust.

Llopis lists the following as the seven early warning signs to look for in leaders when employees are having problems trusting:

  • Lack of Courage
  • Hidden Agendas
  • Self-Centered
  • Reputation Issues
  • Inconsistent Behavior
  • Don’t Get Their Hands Dirty
  • Lack of Generous Purpose

While all are important, I will explore the four that I have found to be the most critical.

Lack of Courage

Our ‘core values’ (those values we will fight to protect at all costs) and ‘guiding principles’ (those items that are important, but are more situational than our core values) are challenged with regularity.  In those moments, some leaders struggle to stand for what they believe; sometimes, because we haven’t figured out who we want to be as a leader.  Sometimes, we lack the courage to do so.

The literature on leadership is full of guidance about being an ‘effective’ leader, some of it quite useful.  Unfortunately, if we are looking ‘out there’ for answers, we may miss the most important answers that are ‘in here.’  It is our ‘authentic self’ that gives rise to how well we create and sustain others’ trust.  If we don’t understand what our unique contribution is, we run the risk of trying to be something, or someone, that we’re not.  As you assume greater responsibility for more people, you will need greater courage.  It is often a very lonely place.


It doesn’t take long for a leader who is self-centered to be exposed.  Employees can tell if you are interested in their well-being and advancement.  Self-centered leaders may try to ‘mask’ their true intent to get what they want (hidden agendas).  If a leader is not actively coaching and supporting their people to achieve what the employee wants, the employee will lose trust.  I have watched several very talented people be de-railed by their egocentric behaviors.  In general, being self-centered is not helpful in creating and sustaining trust.


It doesn’t take long for your behavior as a leader to become your ‘reputation.’    If this is a negative reputation, and employees actively talk about you (and they will), it is difficult for them to trust you.  This be a significant problem, as your ‘reputation’ will spread faster than you realize.  My HR Director once told me, “You’ll never know how much the staff watches you.”  She was right.  Heeding her statement was one of the smarter things I ever did.

Inconsistent Behavior

The one that I have seen do a lot of damage to a leader’s trust is inconsistent behavior.  We find we are willing to invest more trust in people we can predict.  For many leaders that I have known or worked for, the consistency of their responses (note, I said responses and not reactions) had a direct impact on how good they were to work for.  Those who ‘reacted,’ to adversity were particularly difficult for me to work for.  It took a lot more energy to try and understand/predict what they would do in any given circumstance.  One common trait I often found in those that ‘reacted’ is that they were not as good at either planning or executing the plan

When I look over these early warning signs that foreshadow issues of trust, I am reminded that many of these go back to the ‘inner’ work that a leader does – or doesn’t do.  How well do they know themselves? How well do they know who they are in the world?  How good are they at creating and sustaining relationships?  Each of these areas are critical in helping us create our ‘true self.’  Internal work done well helps us to have the confidence to have more courage, and, we are secure enough to have the insight to understand the value of being more externally focused rather than internally.  Our inner work helps us to be more ‘centered’ in who we are and be able to act in a way that lays the ground work for a positive reputation.  That same ‘centering’ helps us to know we need to ‘respond’ to situations and people, not ‘react’ to them.

I hope these thoughts will strengthen your own self-awareness of those areas you do well, where you foster trust, and those areas that put you more at risk.

To a better you…



Of Interest:  Some additional thoughts about bosses and trust.