Are you a “trusted leader”?

Posted in Leadership

More than ever, the business climate today requires that we form collaborative relationships with our internal and external business partners. Whether these are cross-functional teams within your organization, or external stakeholders such as communities, or special interest groups, the need to quickly establish “trust” is paramount if these relationships are to succeed. So why is it that in many of these

Trust Imagesituations, trust is becoming more and more elusive?

Like me, you have undoubtedly experienced cyclical swings in business and observed for yourself the impact these swings can have on the levels of trust in the workplace. When financial results are positive and tracking to budgeted levels, higher levels of trust and associated positive actions seem to grow exponentially. Conversely, when the business results are not on track, we often see an erosion of trust and the toxic behaviours associated with the lack of it.

As always there are exceptions. Take for example the organization that when “the chips are down”, rally as a team to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, exceed their financial expectations and in the process create extremely high levels of lasting trust both internally and externally. What makes the difference?

“Leadership” is what makes the difference! True “Leaders” set the tone for what levels of trust exists inside an organization. These individuals believe that building trust in an organization is more about managing their own behaviours than managing that of others. In short, they model the behaviours they expect to see in others.

In his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen R. Covey describes “trust” as balance between “Character” and “Competence”. I have always admired the simplicity of this definition. We have all likely had experiences with leaders who demonstrated a high degree of “character” but lacked the offsetting business acumen to get the job done. Conversely, you have also likely observed “competent”; leaders who know the technical aspects of their business but fail to demonstrate the “Emotional Intelligence” required for them to be successful, long term. Either trait on their own usually produce immediate results, but all too often these leaders quickly lose their luster due to a lack of sustainability and balance. It is only with a balance of both character and competence that exceptional Leaders are able to deliver on the multiple stakeholder demands they face in today’s business environment. In the process, they succeed at building credibility and lasting relationships with high levels of trust being formed as the foundation.

Throughout my career I have enjoyed the opportunity of working closely with numerous cultures and corporations around the world. Through these relationships I quickly learned the value of trust, which often took years to build, yet once in place, formed a lasting bond that was critical and more often than not, led to seamless future business transactions. Unfortunately, I have also observed organizations and individuals who became careless or complacent and ignored the “character and competence” balance. In these situations trust that took years to build was lost in an instant, never to be recovered. What I learned through these wonderful and life changing offshore associations I believe applies equally here in our own backyard. People the world over have a fundamental need to be understood. When we take the time to listen, and truly understand we set in motion the building blocks that form the foundation of trust. Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”, embodies this philosophy and to be an effective leader, listening is a critical step in the journey.

It is often the little things that count the most and when it comes to building trust in business and life. Remind yourself to attend to the little things, like saying “thank you”, following up on a commitment, or simply sharing a smile and a warm greeting? While seemingly second nature for most, these “little things” can get forgotten in the hectic pace of the day to day challenges and become blockers instead of enhancers in your efforts to build trust.

A former mentor and colleague of mine had a favourite saying, “What gets measured gets done”. He understood the concepts Character and Competence long before Covey gave us his definition and was able to create amazingly high levels of trust with those he interacted with. Part of the reason I believe he accomplished this was his ability to set very clear expectations. In your environment, do you really know what’s expected of you? Do others know what you expect from them? Ensure that both are clear and if not, seek greater clarity. Above all deliver on your agreed commitments, and hold others accountable for theirs; trust will be the by product of your diligence.

Finally, one of the most crucial aspects of trust is “integrity”. How you exercise your integrity on a daily basis will solidify or destroy your character and ultimately determine your overall success. Sounds harsh, I realize, but as successful leaders are acutely aware, they are constantly “under the microscope” and inconsistency when it comes to integrity is the weed that quickly matures then chokes the life out of any trust you have managed to nurture and grow.

Leadership comes at a cost, and the rewards go to those who make the effort to grow their technical skills and abilities and at the same time enhance their awareness of themselves and the people they surround themselves with. In today’s business climate character and competence are simply the price of admission. What you do as a leader to model both will determine yours and your organizations level of trust and ultimately its level of success. You see, my children were all creative spellers


  1. Rebecca
    April 3, 2013

    In the weird way the universe works, the first thing I read this morning was a tweet from someone quoting Tom Peters: "Management is about arranging and telling. Leadership is about nurturing and enhancing."

    I don't think you were harsh in your comments about integrity. When people demonstrate integrity, they earn respect, something I consider another important aspect of trust. Interestingly, the people I respect and trust most, and who I feel are the most effective leaders, are not necessarily those in the C-Suite. Perhaps because they are the ones setting the clearest expectations for the people working for them directly? And maybe because I don't look at them with the same lens I use for those responsible for leading entire organizations?

    Whatever the case, lots of food for thought. Thanks.

    • JimNicholson604
      April 3, 2013

      Thanks Rebecca, great insights! I appreciate you sharing your perspective…Integrity, I agree…is everything.

  2. Genevieve Creighton
    April 3, 2013

    This is a really insightful post on elements of leadership and the important intersections between humanity and diligence. You've traveled extensively and had the opportunity to do business with people of different cultural backgrounds for many years and I like your description of what it takes to build trust and lay the groundwork for positive collaborations. It made me wonder, have you noticed a shift in what people expect from a leader? If so, is this a cross cultural phenomenon or are concepts such as "emotional intelligence" primarily important in the West?

    • JimNicholson604
      April 3, 2013

      Hi Gen;

      Thanks for your comments and thought provoking questions.

      Yes I do believe that peoples expectations of leaders have changed over the years. People are looking for more fulfilling careers and the balance between the work and your life has become as important a question as the job itself. I can't believe the number of people these days, both those nearing retirement and new entrants to the workforce who say openly that they will not work in an environment where they don't respect the leader of the organization or their immediate boss. This was unheard of years ago when people simply put their head down and did the jobs that were asked of them. Exit interviews are also something more common theses days…thank God…making questionable leaders examine their tactics for fear of exposure during these insightful interviews. Yes it is changing and for the better.

      Regarding your second question about the universality of Trust and Emotional Intelligence; I have tried to think beyond my European and Australian experiences (which tend to be much like ours) and focus my experiences a little futher afield to Japan and Ethopia where I interacted with both executives and front line individuals. My experience the world over is that trust and the need for this most basic of human interaction is universal. It may manifest itself in varying degrees but at the end of the day people all value being heard and respected for their contributions and the trust that usually evolves from these interations is what creates the long term relationships that develop. My thoughts only based on my experiences, so if others would like to chime in, we would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. Jim Nicholson
    April 6, 2013

    Here is a great link that further reinforces this concept.
    It’s not empowerment unless you trust people
    Check it out.

  4. Rose Sones LeMay
    May 14, 2013

    Leaders are those who take their community to a place where they have never been before – Mary Simon, past president of ITK. Also said by a well-known American leader.
    I very much appreciate the importance of trust. Do you see an increasing demand for leaders to posess and be able to build consensus on a vision for the community / company? Perhaps the model is competence+character+vision. Thanks for sharing!

    • Anonymous
      May 23, 2013

      Thanks for your comments Rose, great to hear from you. You are likely correct on the vision part as to me this speaks to the forward momentum that accompanies Character and Competence. Good add, thank you.

  5. Christine Gustafson
    July 8, 2013

    Hi Jim,

    I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts on this a few weeks ago. This past weekend I was listening to a CBC podcast on trust (Under the Influence: Trust in Advertising) and thought of your post. Although it wasn’t speaking to leadership diectly, I thought there were some good ideas and great stories that you might enjoy. The Continental Airlines story about the trust relationship between management and employees and how that transfers to customers particularly got me thinking.


    Looking forward to your future posts!

    • Anonymous
      July 22, 2013

      Hi Christine;
      Thanks so much for your feedback and sharing the Continental Airlines story with me.
      I appreciate that you took time to read my Blog and glad to hear that it left a positive impression.
      Best regards;

  6. Anda Tudor
    February 6, 2014

    I like the mention about the little things that make the difference in the long run and the favourite saying, “What gets measured gets done”. So true. From my experience, I saw tremendous results when I start to pay attention and do the little things. Not only that I saw the results in others but it changed me. And of course, once you understand you get understood :). Thank you for a great article Jim.

    • Anonymous
      February 7, 2014

      Thanks for your feedback Anda. It was nice to meet you yesterday and I enjoyed the Coaching, Mentoring and Sponsorship event.
      Look forward to our paths crossing again.