How To Become a Better Leader By Building and Gaining Trust

Great leadership is built on three pillars: trust, honesty, and appropriate vulnerability.

In this article, I’m going to zero in on the first pillar, trust.

I’ve yet to meet a leader who doesn’t get that trust is absolutely crucial. It’s so important in a work environment — I often tell clients to refrain from using the term “team” until trust is clearly present.

Think about professional sports teams that reach championship levels. They don’t just show up and play together. There’s a different aura among teams on the verge of winning a championship versus all the rest.

Talent doesn’t make a team. In fact, iconic players with outrageous egos can cause problems for the whole team. But equally talented players who’ve got their egos under control end up displaying superhuman skills.

In the professional world, many don’t realize that they’re not part of a team — they’re collaborating with a workgroup. It’s not a team until the trust is there.

Before we get into the components of trust, let’s define it and make sure we’re on the same page.

Trust, like its opposite, betrayal, can only be present in a two-member relationship. It’s a feeling that I have about you.

If I trust you, it means I feel safe with you and have confidence that you won’t exploit me. You also have my best interests in mind.

Trusting someone, whether it’s a business or life partner, means you believe the person you trust will live up to the commitments they’ve made to you. And you feel safe because of that. In a robust trusting relationship, both people feel the same way and believe they won’t be betrayed by the other. It’s absolutely a reciprocal thing.

When discussing trust in a professional environment, it’s useful to break it down in the following way:

No alt text provided for this image

As you can see, there are two main components that are essential for establishing a foundation for trust: Competence and Character. I’ll cover an overview of both branches below.

Competence: Results + Capability

Competence is the ability to fulfill an assignment. It speaks to how well you perform when a (hopefully) clearly defined role has been assigned, and whether you achieve the metrics required.

To get more granular, there are two branches under Competence — Capability and Results. One part of being competent is doing a job and getting it done.

The second branch, Capability, is about what you’re able to do. What is your ability? What’s your knowledge and your experience?

Evaluating competency is highly pronounced in the hiring process. While hiring technology has changed dramatically, the process hasn’t changed fundamentally. The last stage of hiring involves making a judgment call about whether the person you’ve interviewed is telling you the truth about their competence.

As a leader doing the hiring, you want to interview for competence, and if you go out looking for a leadership role, you want to present yourself with competence. After all, the interviewer wants to believe you’re the answer to their problem. It’s up to you to convince them they’re right about you (and have the data to back it up).

The Trust Chart is a helpful schematic or checklist for both sides. It speaks to the deeper concerns in a job interview setting, which is that the fundamental desire for trust undercuts the whole dialogue between employer and employee.

Character: Intent + Integrity

I came across an interesting slide deck a while back. According to these slides, Warren Buffett lists personal integrity first and foremost when hiring an employee. Second, he looks for high intellect, and third, he wants to work with people who are ambitious. But here’s the kicker — he qualified the criteria and said that if a hire doesn’t have personal integrity, the smarts and ambition will kill you.

Boy, does that resonate with what I’ve seen in 40+ years of business. It drives home the point that character is essential.

Under Character on the chart, you see the two branches of Intention and Integrity. Attributes like honesty, fairness and authenticity contribute to Integrity. The question to ask yourself when thinking about Integrity is, do people think of you as a good person?

At a basic level, people don’t like it when they get the sense that someone is hiding something. When we think about negative interactions, often it’s because there’s an element of insincerity. In other words, we remain on guard. We cannot get comfortable.

We’ve all had that experience shaking the hand of a leader who isn’t even looking you in the eye as they scan the rest of the room for who to connect with next. They’re being inauthentic and it doesn’t leave you with a good feeling.

Intent includes qualities like caring, transparency and self-control. While caring and transparency are pretty intuitive, self-control is a little less obvious. To unpack it, think of self in the context of the ego. If you have needs and wants that can only be met at someone else’s expense, and you’re manipulative in order to meet those, you’re failing to manage yourself.

A key question to determine if you’ve achieved self-control is: have you gotten a handle on your own nature?

We are all selfish to some degree, but you have to learn to develop strategies to keep your ego in check, and that has everything to do with knowing who you are, being aware of your personality and your propensities. This plays into trust because it’s easier to trust a person who has control over these aspects of themselves.

And there you have it. Trust, which is one of three pillars of good leadership, can be broken down into Character and Competence. You can use this understanding to improve your leadership aptitude and become a Leader by Attraction — a leader whose energies are dialed into every room they enter, a leader who draws people in. Leading by Attraction means that people want to be near you and hear what you have to say. They believe you care and they’re inspired to go the extra mile to help you achieve the results you want.

This article is based on episodes of Sheer Clarity, a weekly leadership podcast from J. Kevin McHugh. Visit the website to view all episodes and subscribe.

McHugh is the president of JKM Management Development, a management consulting firm specializing in increasing organizational performance and coaching business leaders to develop emotional awareness, conflict resolution capabilities, and maximize executive effectiveness.

Sheer Clarity with J. Kevin McHugh