Trust – The Foundation of Great Leadership

Published by Mark Zerbach on


Leadership Article Series


Trust is the foundation for any great leader. Being a leader means asking people to move beyond their daily norm toward a preferable future. Only employees that trust their leaders will be willing to embark on that journey. Making changes is often a frustrating experience, and most people usually find that attempts to change fail. Yet, in today’s world, change is necessary to keep businesses competitive. Leaders who can cultivate trust in their people will be able to create an environment in which change not only possible, but enjoyable.

Key Terms

  • Trust: the ability to confidently rely on a person’s future actions
  • Leadership: unifying people with a common goal by empowering them
  • Transparency: institution-wide awareness resulting from the open sharing of information
  • Environment: the perception of a workplace, as dictated by its culture


While trust is a term whose meaning can vary based on context, this article will focus on the trust that members of an organization have in its leader or leaders. Trust, in this sense, is the ability that employees have to confidently rely on actions their leader is going to take in the near or distant future. Trust must be built over time. Employees must see that their leaders’ actions line up with their words and have positive results. As they see this pattern repeated, they are able to focus less on scrutinizing their leaders’ choices, having seen for themselves a pattern of desirable outcomes. The employees can then abandon their desires to control every situation, and their leaders can move the organization forward.

Two correlating components which are key to earning trust are transparency and integrity. Implementing transparency requires leaders to share information that is relevant to their employees’ roles, particularly information regarding change. People that you lead need to see that you have a plan and that you’re willing to share the details of that plan with them. It doesn’t matter if they read the information you give them; trust is created simply by you providing it.

Integrity means that your actions line up with your words. Once you’ve shared details about your plans for change, people will watch and see if and how you follow through with your plan. This is why having a solid, well-designed plan is important. Seeing leaders change course or backtrack on their plan does not promote trust.

Even with full transparency and complete integrity, trust is still not guaranteed if people don’t believe you have the company’s and their best interest in mind. It’s important that you, as the leader, have thoroughly studied any changes you want to make, ensuring that they’re what’s best for the customers and company, and that you share your vision with your employees. They have to first believe that what you want to accomplish will somehow benefit them before they will commit to anything else.

Having your employees trust you is great for morale and for effecting change. However, this is a question of business, not social interaction, and the end goal is to make money. The best leaders see trust in economic terms. If people trust you, they go about their individual tasks knowing that you’re handling the big picture. If people don’t trust you, everything takes longer and costs more because of the steps people and organizations have to take as a result of the lack of trust. These costs can actually be quantified, and when they are, leaders see that a trust deficit is not merely a social or cultural issue, but an economic one. The dividends of high levels of trust can be similarly quantified, enabling leaders to make a compelling case for trust from a business perspective.

The best leaders focus on making trust an explicit objective. It must become like any other goal that is focused on, measured, and improved. It must be communicated to management and leadership that trust matters, both ethically and economically. When employees trust their leaders, they aren’t distracted by issues caused by lack of trust. Rather, they’re empowered to focus on their jobs. Unifying and empowering people through trust is a mark of great leadership.

Many of these principles of leadership can be found in the book Developing the Leader Within You, by John C. Maxwell. In it, he lists several elements of leadership which we can consider in terms of trust.

  • Influence – this is what makes people follow leaders.
    • If people trust you, you will have influence over them.
  • Priorities – leaders are responsible for determining priorities.
    • People will follow leaders who know where they’re headed.
  • Integrity – doing what you say tells more about who you are than what you do.
    • People want to follow leaders whose character they can respect.
  • Creating positive change – leaders make positive changes happen in their company.
    • If people see that what you’re doing is beneficial, it gives them a reason to trust.
  • Problem-solving – leaders solve problems for their people so their people can focus on their work.
    • When you make people’s jobs easier, they trust that your goal is to support them.
  • Attitude – leaders’ attitudes influence the attitude of the whole company.
    • Leaders who are positive and predict success merit trust.
  • People – as a leader, supporting employees is your duty.
    • If people can tell that you are working for them, they feel inclined to trust you.
  • Vision – leaders must be an example of putting the vision into practice.
    • When you live the vision, people will perceive that it has value.
  • Self-discipline – leaders must be consistent in following the plans they’ve established.
    • This shows your integrity and shows people their trust is well-placed.
  • Staff development – leaders need to devote resources to bettering their people.
    • Trust increases when people see you investing in their success.

Real-world example

Several years ago, I was part of making a change in the business where I worked, a transformation that affected the foundation of how we had been doing business for decades. I observed another group that had already implemented that same change and saw the incredible benefits they were experiencing. When I came back to our office, I shared what I had learned and started making steps towards that change.

Many of the steps I took were specifically designed to build my people’s trust in me. I identified some influencers in our community that already trusted me and asked them to join me. Then, others saw that trust and were willing to commit to the process. I made sure they got any training they needed to have success under the new system, and they saw that I was willing to invest in their success. I provided a way for them to have all necessary resources available at their desktop. I let them know that protecting them and supporting them were my number one priorities. We also developed a visibility board to show their progress and celebrate the small and big wins.

The change was an amazing success. They went from producing 20 units a week to 60, and the quality of their work was the best in the company. Their throughput was reduced by 30%, even though there were fewer employees than there had been in the old way of doing things. And their morale was soaring.

There’s a part two to this story.

A couple of years later, the corporate leaders told us that we were to start sharing our workload with Russian engineers. There were not asking – it was a demand. My first reaction was to chafe at the ultimatum, and to list all the things that could go wrong with mixing people of different cultures, languages, and training backgrounds all into the same group. After studying it out, I soon saw that this change would allow us to move our own people up the value chain to focus on other key projects. I could see how this would take us one step closer to fulfilling our leaders’ vision.

Because I had earned the trust of my group previously, they took my word that this drastic change would be beneficial. In the end, our group was the best in the company at incorporating the Russian engineers. Because of their trust in me, my group didn’t waste time questioning this new way of doing things; they just ran with it. They developed twin systems with the Russians that mirrored each other and produced the same results.

Over the next few years, those that had adopted the change and accepted the vision were promoted to positions where they took on even more influential roles in making the vision a reality. Many other groups didn’t have a history of developing trust in their group, and they struggled with the change, spending time and energy trying to show how the change was a bad decision. Our group became the example for how the process should work, and they were asked regularly to give tours to show how things should be done.

My role in this was to support them and give them reasons to trust me and the vision. They knew I was there for them, but that they owned this part of the business. They took responsibility for the change and voluntarily took steps to make it happen.


Maxwell, John C. Developing the Leader Within You. HarperCollins Christian Publishing, 2018.

Stephen MR Covey The Speed of Trust. Free Press, 2006

Categories: Leadership