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 shosw you have to value something, whether it is time, money, property, or a relationship. You have to be willing to access to an item of value to another person in such a way they can either add, subtract, or protect the base value based on 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 treats others respectfully. The supporters of the organization, such as board members, stock holders, 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 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. I do mean that you know where your people are during working hours, you know what things they are working on, you know they are being paid properly, you know they are taking 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 in a meeting 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 there to defend themselves. 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 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 with greater influence. 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 to carve 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