Trust, the Cornerstone of Leadership

One has to build bridges to build trust. Bridges require strong foundations. Trust is the cornerstone of any strong leadership foundation.
-Photo by author

A few years ago, I found myself struggling to repair trusting relationships between members of a team I lead. While my relationship was still good, some team members had a spat that reduced trust and increased friction. We invited a consultant to do a training event focusing on improving trust in professional relationships. As this drama unfolded, the leader of a different organization asked me to provide as short presentation to the other senior leaders in that team on the importance of trust for leaders. A few months later, was in a leadership seminar and trust was a key discussion topic. As I reflected on the things I learned from these opportunities, I started rethinking my position that character was the foundation of leadership. As I worked though the connections of leadership, character, and trust, I realized my initial impression of character as the foundation of leadership was correct. I also realized that trust was the cornerstone of character, and therefore the cornerstone of leadership.

As I continued to reflect on the cornerstone analogy, I found six areas leaders can work on to develop trusting relationships with their followers, peers, senior leaders, and people outside their organization. Those areas include communication, being responsible, building your team, developing proficiency, demonstrating respect, and setting an example. Over the next few months, I will post examining each of these areas in more detail. The balance of this post focuses on introducing each of these topics.

Character is the foundation of leadership. One develops character by the way they live their personal and organizational values in a consistent, disciplined fashion. Living a life of character creates trust. Trust enables leaders to know that what they ask and expect followers to do will be done, even when they are not there. Followers do what is expected and make important decisions when the leader is not around because they trust their leader will support them.

Everyone thinks they know what trust is. If I asked you to provide a definition, how long would it take for you to formulate one? After some reading and reflecting, I define trust as: a choice to risk something you value to the actions of another based on your belief in their character. A quick analysis of this definition shows you have to value something, whether it is time, money, property, or a relationship. You have to be willing to allow someone else to access an item of value in such a way they can either add, subtract, or protect the base value through their actions. You use your knowledge and understanding of their perceived capability to decide if the risk is reasonable. The basis of your judgment is your observed ability of the other to accomplish things, and their record of virtue in their personal and professional life.

Character is the foundation of leadership. Foundations must be strong or things collapse. Strong cornerstones hold more weight. Trust is the cornerstone of character.
– photo from

Leaders are trusted to provide valuable guidance, actively pursue goals, use resources effectively, and treat others respectfully. The supporters of the organization, such as board members, stockholders, customers, and employees, decide to trust a leader based on their perception of how well the leader competently executes with available resources and cares for people. Leaders earn trust by communicating, acting responsibly, building the team, demonstrating proficiency, acting respectfully, and setting a good example.

Leaders are in the communication business. They must communicate consistently up, down, and across their organization. Honesty is important. Without honest communication, there can be no trust. Honest communications reduce anxiety in stressful times. When leaders develop a reputation for honesty, others tolerate the absence of communication on a subject or topic on occasions when a leader indicates she cannot speak on it. Even in those cases, it is critical for a leader to disclose the constraint and when they will be able to discuss the matter.

There are several aspects to being a responsible leader. You must do what you say you are going to do, and keep track of the people and property entrusted to you. The first part of this quality seems simple enough, if you say you will do something, do it. However, it is not always easy. Sometimes life gets in the way of what you promised to do. When you find a way to accomplish all you promised, you will be trusted as a reliable leader.

The next part of this quality is tracking people and things. When I say it is important to track people, I do not mean creepy internet stalking stuff. You must know where your people are during working hours, what they are working on, that they are being paid properly, they take adequate time off to remain fresh and avoid burnout, and that they are well-trained. In fact, if you do not take care of all of these things, you do not deserve to expect to attract and retain quality people nor expect quality results.

Turing our attention to tracking property, there is more to it than just knowing the numbers. If you lose track of property entrusted to you, you and your people will not have the resources to work. Equally important to having the right numbers of things is that the property is operational. If you have 20 widgets, but only five are working, you only have 5 widgets.

The next facet is building your team. You do that by working them hard. Whether it is a challenging problem to solve or developing a new product or service, nothing builds that team like hard work. It creates a shared team identity and history.

Proficiency ensures you know what right looks like. As a result, you know when people are doing the right things, the right way, for the right reasons.
– photo from

Be proficient in your field. You do not need to know how to operate every machine, or generate every report, but you need to know enough, so you know what is and is not real. Others judge your competence by your demonstrations of skill, knowledge, time, and capacity to complete a given task. If you lack something, you build trust by admitting it up front and solidifying a plan to overcome the shortfall.

Act respectfully of others all the time. There are several ways you can do that. Speak positively about others when they are not present. Be punctual. When you are late, you send a clear message that you do not value other people’s time. Be empathetic. Sometimes connecting someone with a mentor or asking about a family problem shows you care.

Set the example by living the standards you set. Model expected behaviors. Others will follow your example. Setting an example by living your values and the values of your organization is the most demonstrative way you build character and establish trust. It shows you are willing to walk the talk and know that what you expect of others can be done.

Leaders build character and develop trust with subordinates, peers, senior leaders, and leaders outside your organization by improving in each area. You build character one day at a time with every single action you take. As your character grows, the trust others place in you grows. Increased trust provides greater influence. Bigger and better opportunities become available to you and your team. Character is the foundation of leadership. Trust is the cornerstone of that foundation. The cornerstone must be solid or everything else collapses. Without trust, leaders and their teams fail. With trust, you and your team harness the power and influence necessary to accomplish anything. Now that you are done reading this, pick up your hammer and chisel, and begin carving your cornerstone of trust.


  • Covey, S. & Merrill, R. (2008) The speed of trust. Free Press. New York, NY
  • Feltman, C (2008). The thin book of trust. Thin Book Publishing. Bend, OR

Thank a Vet by Hiring a Vet

Cha-BOOM! Another morning starts with mortars landing on the roof. Bap-bap-bap-bap-bap. The M-240 machine gunner on the observation post over my head fires at someone or something as I roll out of bed and turn on the radio. I hear the Sergeant of the Guard (SOG) informing the operations center that we are receiving direct small arms fire and indirect mortar fire. I think, “No $#!7, we can hear it!” As I pull my body armor on, I hear the SOG directing one of the posts to fire on a position believed to house the forward observer for the mortars. He controls the fire of that position by calling in small corrections, allowing the gunner to zero in on the forward observer. As he radios each correction, we can hear shots cracking around him and the mortars continue to rain down.

Making life and death decisions under pressure creates a level of character for all Veterans, a quality adaptable to any job.

By now I am racing to the operations center to check in, receive accountability from my other squads, and coordinate a counter-attack. Cha-BOOM – another round lands on the roof, shaking the building. “I’ve been hit!”, the SOG yells into the radio. “Tweak it down one more notch,” he directs the machine gunner as they continue to zero in on the observer. “You got him. Now find that RPK.” directs the SOG. The mortars stop and soon, so does the small arms fire. The insurgents melt back into the city before we can roll out the gate and engage with them.

The one thing that stands out in my mind after nearly two decades since this battle occurred was the way the Sergeant of the Guard skillfully directed the fires of the fighting positions while under direct fire. What still amazes me however is that had he not announced on the radio he had been injured, no one listening would have any idea he was wounded. He continued to direct the battle and move from position to position like he was doing a little fitness training in his hometown.

I have heard people say that leadership is the most important thing on the battlefield. The leadership provided by the Sergeant of the Guard on that June morning directly resulted in the enemy lose of their eyes directing the mortars being used against us. Because they lost the ability to control their fires, the others fighters gave up the fight. The SOG’s cool reaction under fire, and while wounded, set an example of how good leaders instill confidence, provide guidance, and create trust under pressure.

This Field Artilleryman spent a year serving as a Military Police Soldier and helped train thousands of local police.

Most leaders in the most work places will never face such a life and death situation. However, many react like minor things are life and death events and engage in seagull management. The term comes from The One-Minute Manager. Ken Blanchard shares the story of a manager flying over his workers. When she catches someone doing something wrong, she swoops in, flaps her wings, makes lots of noise, and on the way out dumps on the people as they sort out the confusion.

When an employer hires a veteran, they gain an employee that knows what crises look like. Most know what an appropriate response is to given situations. Too often, employers look at a veteran’s employment history and sees they served in one of the combat arms, infantry (queen of battle), field artillery (King of Battle), armor, or carvery and has no idea what their real skills are.

National Guard member working a COVID Vaccination Site.

The military makes leaders of young people. A 20 or 21-year-old Soldier might be responsible for the very lives of four or five other people, like the Sergeant on the roof during the mortar attack. Even if that Soldier makes a text book correct decision, the Soldiers he leads might still die. How many life and death decisions do leaders in your organization have to make on a regular basis? I suspect in most cases, the answer is few. Yet the very people who are qualified to recognize and make those decisions are placed at the bottom of hiring lists because they do not appear to have skills.

If you are an employer that values leaders who can work independently, create a positive work environment, motivate people with a variety of skills, and accomplish things, you need to look at that veteran a second time. Lots of people now feel free to walk up to a person in uniform and thank them for their service. What are you really thankful for? If you are grateful they provided leadership in tough circumstances, offer them a job or connect them with someone who can.

Veterans have demonstrated the capability to learn new things under pressure. They know how to work in teams. They understand you do not have to like the other person in your foxhole, but you need to know how to work with them so you both survive. Veterans value loyalty, duty, honor, and service. They know what hard work is because for them, and eight-hour day is only the first part of the work day; many have worked 20 or 30-hour days

Veterans worked a variety of jobs in the military. Often, what they are tasked to do is not aligned with what they are trained to do but they figure out how to complete the mission.

As a job interviewer, you may not understand all the jargon veterans use. Ask them to clarify what they mean. Even the most junior leader in the military creates mission orders for their team based on what their boss needs. Veterans learn to understand the intent of the mission, which in the business world is a job or project. They develop plans to accomplish their part of the project. They communicate their plan with their bosses and their team. Veterans learn to coordinate their actions with the teams operating to their left, right, and rear, basically, all around them.

Veterans may not know how to operate your Black Hole Client Management System, but they know how to gather information. They may not be able to operate your particular milling machine, but they learn to operate lots of different military equipment. They may not know your particular protocol to deal with a crisis, but they know how to quickly make decisions based on the available information, their understanding of the intention of the project, the guiding principles of the organization, and then how to execute in a calm, disciplined way. Every organization needs people who can make decisions under pressure, inspire others to be more than they are, and complete important work with little supervision. Those are normal days in the military, and that is why veterans make good hires. Do not just thank a vet this Veterans Day; hire one.


Blanchard, K, & Johnson, S (1983). The one-minute manager. Berkley Books. London, UK.

Marshall A. (2019). Baqubah: Bones and blood. Baqubah Press. Barrington, NH

Willink, J, & Babin, L. (2015). Extreme ownership. St. Martin’s Press. New York, NY.

Top photos by author

Bottom photos from New Hampshire National Guard

Learn More

These are a small number of organizations looking to help employers find and hire Veterans. Selecting these sites for sharing here is intended only to raise awareness for employers and Veterans of some ways they can connect. Their selection is not an endorsement.

(c) 2021 Christopher St. Cyr