What makes for good leadership? There isn’t a straightforward answer. The study and practice of leadership is a bit like Baskin-Robbins with thirty-one or more different flavors. There is valid data to show that effective leaders lead from the front with charismatic personalities. Other, equally valid, studies show that effective leaders function more in the background as servants to their organizations, focused on effective team processes and promoting the leadership capabilities of those around them. Leaders wield power appropriately. Leaders give power away. Leaders are extroverts. Leaders are introverts. Leaders are transparent. Leaders hold confidences. Leaders are visionaries. Leaders are detailed-oriented. Leaders are high-capacity work horses. Leaders are laser focused in getting the job done. Leaders are experts. Leaders are learners. Leaders are daring innovators. Leaders honor tradition.1
All of these are true which makes teaching leadership difficult; there are valid counterfactuals for just about every popularized aspect of leading. The point of good leadership is to know how to hone these and other aspects of leadership in tension with each other; to practice a sort of leadership agility that can respond to organizational and situational needs while continuously modeling one’s institutional mission in alignment with a personal moral compass.
But there is one characteristic of leadership that has no counterpoint, paradox, nor acts in tension with any other aspect leadership. At its heart leadership is relational and there is no stronger aspect of that relational muscle than trust. At a time when the ability or even the propensity to trust individuals and institutions appears to be at an all-time societal low,2 it’s worthwhile to delve into the psychological and management literature3 to understand how leaders and their followers flex that muscle.
People trust their leaders when they can predict with some regularity what they will do in any given situation. Ask yourself what makes for trustworthy leadership and you are likely to be spot on with two of its attributes: competence and integrity. Leaders who are competent are likely to be knowledgeable subject matter experts, show good judgement, have strong interpersonal skills and are wise in the practice of leadership. They tend to be detail-oriented but also visionary because their expertise allows them to see the larger consequences of any action. They are trustworthy because they know what they are doing and wield power appropriately.
Integrity, that wholeness at the core of the word “integer,” is reflected in the congruency among high moral values, beliefs, words, and actions; people with personal integrity develop a track-record of doing what they say they are going to do with a clear understanding of the choices before them. But integrity is more than that for heads of organizations; they should also demonstrate institutional integrity by acting in ways that are aligned with their organizational missions and the principles, values, and a sense of fairness and justice that stems from them. Leaders of integrity are trustworthy because they are predictable in their actions, model their values, and honor the traditions of their institutions.
Although not as intuitive, benevolence is the third characteristic of a trustworthy leader. It is the extent to which a leader is believed to want to do good for followers regardless of profit motive. Or to put it more simply, it’s having someone’s back even when there is no personal benefit to do so. Benevolence is not just a “nice to have” attribute of trustworthiness. It complements the other two. While competence and integrity are the cognitive component of trustworthiness, benevolence is its emotional aspect. Benevolent leaders show personal concern and create an atmosphere where followers can be vulnerable, because they model what it means to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is not an outcome of trust, rather trust develops when leaders are vulnerable. Benevolent leaders are trustworthy because their followers believe that they have their personal interests at heart, are interpersonally transparent, and, like servant leaders, are loyal, caring, and supportive.4
Work can be chaotic and unpredictable but that is not necessarily a bad thing; otherwise, we would be bored with rote jobs and perfunctory relationships. Trustworthy leaders foster risk taking in the face of organizational unknowns. Their competence provides the knowledge, skills, and strategic roadmap. Their integrity, providing a sense of fairness or moral character, helps to cope with uncertainty, and their benevolence provides a supportive, “we’re all in this together,” ethos which in turn frees followers to be more confident in moving out of the confines of the status quo. With trustworthy leaders, followers can put their full energy into the work at hand rather than worrying how they are likely to be judged in failure as well as success. Trustworthy leaders make a difference. Those who perceive competence, integrity, and benevolence in their leaders are better at their work, more likely to go the extra mile, and are more likely to stay with their institutions.5
There is a fourth and very straightforward attribute of leadership trust: followers trust leaders who trust them first. But the responsibility to kick start this mutuality falls on leaders who begin the cycle of trust through cooperation, risk taking, vulnerability, and empowerment. In return, followers become less wary of risk taking, and more willing to be cooperative, which increases both leaders’ initial trust as well as followers’ perceptions of their leader’s trustworthiness. While leaders start the process, it culminates in a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle.6 Trust begets trust.
This mutuality of trust has high organizational payoffs. To quote from a Harvard Business Review piece by Management Professors Holly Henderson Brower, Scott Wayne Lester, and M. Audrey Korsgaard,
“Employees who are less trusted by their manager exert less effort, are less productive, and are more likely to leave the organization. Employees who do feel trusted are higher performers and exert extra effort, going above and beyond role expectations. Plus, when employees feel their supervisors trust them to get key tasks done, they have greater confidence in the workplace and perform at a higher level.” 7
Trustworthiness is a perceived characteristic that develops over time. Trust is a conscious choice and action. Jesus is trustworthy and he places his trust in a questionable lot; Peter is impetuous, Matthew is a tax collector, Judas betrays, Thomas can’t risk belief, the disciples quarrel among themselves about who is the greatest, while James and John are looking for the inside track to Jesus’ special favor once he is dead. Later on, Paul aids in the murder of Stephen. Competence? Integrity? Benevolence? They are not there yet when called by Jesus. He sends the disciples out to preach and minister, knowing that they are not ready, yet they come back rejoicing at all that they have seen. That initial trust, one sided as it may be, made a difference in the disciples’ actions and, in turn, the disciples begin working their way toward developing the trustful cooperation that will prosper the early church. As the apostle John came to fully understand, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Leaders are facing so much swirl and uncertainty as we round into the second winter of COVID. Leaders in for-profit institutions are facing the “great resignation,” supply chain shortages with higher prices for raw goods and a workforce that is none too keen to return to the workplace even as building leases still must be paid. Leaders in higher education, even those who were preparing appropriately for the 2025 demographic cliff, are facing possibly steeper declines with more students expected to move to less expensive online platforms. Leaders in Christian higher ed are being inundated with demands to know how they are teaching “hot button” topics that tend to be more political than theological in nature. Everyone is being slammed for whatever stance they are taking on vaccine and mask mandates. Sometimes it seems that there is no one left who is not angry or anxious about something.
So, it’s not surprising when leaders find themselves in such a scrum to go into a type of survival mode by focusing on what has worked in the past and projecting a strong “can-do” type of leadership. It doesn’t seem like now would be a good time to be vulnerable. But institutional hunkering down is a disaster for trust. Pulling back on innovation, authentic communications, and empowerment can violate existing trust. Like the game of Chutes and Ladders, trust is gained one square at a time, but it can slide quickly away when employees feel, for whatever reason, that they are no longer trusted.
Leadership is just plain hard. There is always someone who is willing to tell leaders that they are wrong. Then there is the chronic weariness that can sap reasoning and a loneliness that is brought on by the demands of confidentiality. It’s not unusual for long-serving leaders to deal with their constant stressors by turning inward, putting distance between themselves and their followers, and solely focusing on the demands that land directly on their shoulders. Yet, the orientation to stay focused on others comes through in Paul’s writing in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8. While these chapters are ostensibly about rules concerning eating, they also address how those in power are to act toward those over whom they have influence. In Romans 14:13 Paul writes, “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hinderance in the way of another.” Likewise, in I Corinthians 8:9 he writes “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” When leaders put relationships on the back burner to deal with the exigent churn of uncertainty, the loss of actively trusting others puts in place a block to stumble over, a hindrance creating distance between themselves and those they lead. It may be an unintentional short-term strategy to get through acute difficulties, but its long-term consequences will always be at the expense of healthy and functioning organizations. On the other hand, leaders’ risk taking, vulnerability, collaboration, and empowerment during difficult times aren’t so much about giving up power as they are about multiplying it. Lasting leadership is a matter of trust.
- For those who are interested, my favorite summaries of leadership studies are found in Nitin Nohria & Rakesh Khurana (Eds.), Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice: An HBS Centennial Colloquium on Advancing Leadership (Boston MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010)
- Pew Research Center, The state of personal trust. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/the-state-of-personal-trust/
- Rosalind H. Searle, Ann-Marie Nienaber & Sim B. Sitkin (Eds.), Routledge Studies in Trust Research (London: Routledge, 2018).
- Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis & F. David Schoorman, An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review, 20, no. 3 (1995) 709-734.
- Jason A. Colquitt, Brent A. Scott & Jeffery A. LePine. “Trust, trustworthiness, and trust propensity: A meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, no. 4 (2007): 909–927.
- M. Audrey Korsgaard, “Reciprocal trust: A self-reinforcing dynamic process,” In R. Searle, A.-M. Nienaber & S. I. Sitkin (Eds.), Routledge Studies in Trust Research. (London: Routledge, 2018): 14 – 28.
- Holly H. Brower, Scott W. Lester, & M. Audrey Korsgaard, “Want your employees to trust you? Show you trust them.” Harvard Business Review(2017) https://hbr.org/2017/07/want-your-employees-to-trust-you-showyou-trust-them.