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Kaylene Williams and her colleagues wrote an article for the Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics about the business of lying. In it, they stated that the traditional values of trust and loyalty were deteriorating. They explained that managers are pushing employees harder than ever, demanding they produce at ever-increasing rates to keep up with fast-paced markets. Negative motivations like threats of downsizing, intense competition, high-pressure sales, and longer workweeks abound. It’s no wonder, they argued, that unethical behavior in both managers and employees is rampant while companies spout lines about ethical business practices.[1]

Leader Authenticity

Authentic and charismatic leaders understand that the key to their success is in the trusting relationships they build with employees, colleagues, and customers. Leaders must motivate people to action, preferably to follow them in support of their or the firm’s goals. Self-aware leaders, empowered by a high level of trust from their followers, are charismatic and authentic. They inspire others to act.[2] These inspirational leaders are perceived as trustworthy. They are empowered through genuine and effective relationships with partners. They get to this point by developing a personal identity as reliable with an awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.[3]

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, discussed the traits of a trustworthy leader. They explained that to be trustworthy, leaders have to start by understanding their values, ethics, standards, and ideals. By understanding their deeply held beliefs, they can then drive others supported by those principles. Since self-aware leaders make good use of feedback, they promote trust in that they are going to listen to others and value their opinions. Such leaders improve their skills, identify their shortfalls, and establish open channels of communication by heeding the advice of peers, superiors, and their constituency. Followers trust that their leader will act in everyone’s best interests.[4]

Congruence Between Behavior and Actions

Trust takes a long time to build but can be destroyed with a single act. Self-aware, high-performing leaders build a reputation for being reliable by establishing consistency between their words and deeds.[5] They treat people fairly and respectfully, and as a result, are trusted by followers. Consistency between words and behaviors help leaders build trusting relationships horizontally and vertically throughout the firm.[6]

Eric Hammersen is a history professor at Texas Tech University and former Dean of the College of Strategic Intelligence at the National Intelligence University (NIU). NIU is a federally chartered research university that serves as the US Intelligence Community’s institution for higher learning and is instrumental in training future leaders. In my interview with Hammersen, he stated that trustworthiness beats expertise any day. Colleagues and followers care less about a leader’s technical expertise and more about the congruence between their actions and words. To develop a reputation of trustworthiness with followers, he said that leaders needed to communicate clearly, mean what they say, and practice integrity. Followers appreciate predictability and consistency of behavior. When a leader admits they are wrong about something, it expresses to followers that they are self-aware.[7]

Trusting Workers are Happy Workers

There may be different levels of trust that followers reward leaders with. John Sosik, a researcher on charismatic leadership, stated that the trust and commitment that followers bestow on leaders is directly proportionate to the self-awareness they possess and the charisma they display.[8] When followers feel extraordinary levels of trust towards highly-credible leaders, the rewards for the organization are significant. Followers are proud to serve such an organization. They exhibit a high degree of esprit de corps. They have strong buy-in to the organization, its goals and values, and are committed to seeing things through. These followers share the intrinsic values deeply-held by their leaders.[9]

Trust is a Two-Way Street

For the organization to benefit from harmonious relationships within the firm, these relationships must be nurtured by both leaders and followers alike. If followers can't trust their leaders to act in everyone's best interest, then they will be uncertain about how to best contribute to the organization. In turn, if leaders sense this uncertainty among their followers, then this dissolves their ability to trust their followers to carry out their specified duties. Some leaders tend to take all of the responsibility on themselves, doing all the work, and carrying the burden of success on their shoulders rather than spreading the weight among the team.[10] This could be due to a lack of trust in others or an overinflated sense of self-worth. Either way, these are not leaders; they are over-controlling managers.

Not trusting followers to do the work they’re employed to do will do little to develop them into trusted agents. Withholding information and protecting one’s turf will have a dampening effect on the trusting relationship a leader is trying to create, thus hurting everyone’s productivity at the expense of the organization.[11] A self-aware leader sees the impact of their actions, or at least reads the feedback and realizes something they are doing is wrong. If they don’t because they are deceiving themselves into believing everything is alright and that the lack of productivity is the fault of others and not their own, they will not make amends. When leaders suppress any common ground they are trying to establish with followers by developing a trusting relationship, their self-deception will further erode the needed partnership. Such leaders are more likely to view negative feedback not as an opportunity to improve but more as an aggravation.[12]

Trust takes time to build, and can be a fragile element in the relationship between leader and follower. The benefits of mutually-felt trust, nurtured between leaders and followers are satisfied members of a firm. Leaders must establish and maintain their authenticity in the workplace, and followers must do their part to support the mutual trust felt throughout the organization.


  • the key to a leader’s success is in the trusting relationships they build with followers, colleagues, superiors, and customers

  • consistency between words and deeds helps build trust

[1] Williams et al. (2009) [2] Sosik (2001) [3] Caldwell (2009) [4] Kouzes & Posner (2012) [5] Sosik (2001) [6] Caldwell (2009) [7] Hammersen, F.P.A., in discussion with the author (February 2021) [8] Sosik (2001) [9] Kouzes & Posner (2012) [10] Kouzes & Posner (2012) [11] Kouzes & Posner (2012) [12] Von Hippel & Trivers (2011)

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