business leaders walking down hallway of modern office

Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, illusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather, trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create. 

Stephen R Covey

Building and sustaining Leadership Trust is a delicate, daunting, and formidable endeavor. The leader must make a commitment to the time, energy, perseverance and character needed to undertake this mission. The good news is that you already possess an instinctual understanding of what a trusted leader “looks and feels like.” I want to provide you with some deeper reflection and best practices you can use right now to build more trust in your leadership and organization. 

Overall, there have been 5 categories of these foundational qualities and characteristics that I have observed and correlated with the most trusted leaders operating in high trust organizations: Leadership Vision, Leadership Character, Respect and Appreciation, Competence and Confidence and Empathy.  While I believe you and your organization must possess some measure of all 5, the gravity and dimension of each is unique to you and your authentic leadership style.  They combine to help you design your singular trust mosaic.  For this part of the series I will focus on two of the five trust building strategies – Leadership Vision and Leadership Character

Let’s get to work.

1. Leadership Vision

Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.

Jack Welch

Leadership Vision is widely accepted as a critical quality for any senior leader, in particular CEOs. But leadership vision is so much more than that. It is not just for senior leaders; it’s for any leader and one of the most powerful trust building weapons in any leadership arsenal. I have debated the “chicken and egg” theory of Vision and Trust with many of my friends.  What comes first – A leader must first be trusted to create energy and buy-in to their Vision or a leader must first articulate, communicate, elevate and execute around a Vision in order for them to build trust in their leadership. You have to decide for yourself, but I have a point of view.    I do not accept the premise that a leader must be trusted first to imbue and energize the organization around their Vision.  I believe that it’s Leadership Vision that sets the tone and tenor for organizational trust.   Leadership Vision is a mandate for any person that leads at any level. Whoa! That can’t be right. Why not? The argument I consistently hear is that only the most senior leaders in an organization can be accountable and responsible for Vision.  I personally believe that whole “Trust first… then Vison” concept is dated and misaligned with the requirements demanded today’s leaders.  I’ve had a Vision for every team I have ever led at every level.  Vision is about clarity and transparency around the strategy, mission, purpose, and values of that particular team. If you are a leader, you need that clarity and transparency.  This is how you build trust with that team.  It’s in all of our nature to fear… fear of ambiguity, fear of uncertainty, fear of lack of purpose and lack of destination. Use your Leadership Vision to combat those fears. Throughout my career, the one constant factor attributed to destroying or preventing trust is FEAR. It is virtually impossible for FEAR and TRUST to co-exist throughout a team or an organization. So, if you want to build trust with your team, focus on your Leadership Vision.

2. Leadership Character

Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.

Norman Schwarzkopf

When it comes to trusted leadership and building trust, character is probably the most complex, misunderstood, underappreciated and least written about quality. Yet, it is impossible to be a trusted leader or create a high trust organization without Character. Let’s talk about one high trust organization. 

I reference the Gallup poll above from 2018 The Institutions Americans Trust Most and Least.  Of the 15 measured institutions, The Military at a 74% trust factor was #1 with a respectable 7 percentage point margin over #2.  While the 74% is an absolute number which is a combination of trust a great deal and trust quite a lot scores.  The trust story around the military does not change and in fact it gets even stronger when you factor in the distrust scores of very little and none for a “Net Trust Score” of +69%.

For the entire span of time Gallup has been taking this measure (May 1973), The Military has been the most trusted institution for the last 36 straight years and by a wide margin, reaching all-time highs of 82% in June of 2003 and June of 2009.

The primary mission of the military is to protect and defend the United States and its interests, which can involve engagement in life or death situations. What greater trust can an individual put in their leader than their life or well-being. Trust is everything. The military could not function without trust, and military leadership have always understood that fact. I believe that’s why the military has a hyper focus on leadership character. Character is THE most important leadership quality in the military by a long shot. Case in point, let’s look at the United States Military Academy at West Point.  Acknowledged worldwide as one of, if not the preeminent, school for leadership, it has produced a who’s who of recognized great (and trusted) leaders:

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Ulysses S. Grant

Douglas MacArthur

George S. Patton

Mike Krzyzewski

Buzz Aldrin

Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr

Stanley A. McChrystal

The list goes on and on and on. I don’t think it’s an accident that this institution consistently produces highly trusted leaders. It is all about the focus on character.

The Mission of West Point:

“To educate, train and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the Unites States Army” 

The mission statement is clear; the reason West Point exists is to produce leaders of character.   It’s all about character. I don’t believe it’s an accident or a coincidence that The Military has been the most trusted institution every year for the last three decades. I think this is a direct result of The Military’s relentless focus on character. Clearly, I am biased as a West Point graduate, but the West Point mission and my desire to be a leader of character was the primary reason I chose the United States Military Academy to further my education over several other premier universities.

While I’ve found a dozen variations on the definition of character, they all seem to coalesce around a list of virtues and values. The U.S. Army defines 23 mandatory traits of leadership character: Bearing, Confidence, Courage, Integrity, Decisiveness, Justice, Endurance, Tact, Initiative, Coolness, Maturity, Improvement, Will, Assertiveness, Candor, Sense of Humor, Competence, Commitment, Creativity, Self-discipline, Humility, Flexibility, Empathy/Compassion.

I believe the answer is straightforward. To be a trusted leader, focus on the traits of your character; if you want a high trust organization, focus on the character traits of your leaders.

Leadership Character Matters!

Live Without Limits!