We need leaders, if only for the simple reason that we can’t do everything ourselves. The perils of giving power to someone whom we ultimately don’t trust—who can make our lives better or worse in large and small ways—seem ever present.
Research cautions us against trusting leaders simply because they agree with us. A leader who’s trustable for the long term must have qualities that transcend the immediate circumstances.
Here are some tips on what to look for in trustworthy leaders.
1. They do what they say they will do.
This may seem like a bit of a truism. But decades of research in social psychology finds low correlations between one’s attitudes and behavior. In fact, it’s pretty easy for people to say one thing and do another. A trustworthy leader is mindful of this natural tendency. Gandhi said we experience happiness when what we think, say, and do are in harmony. Consistency in thoughts, words, and actions also make leaders more trustworthy.
2. They are transparent in their decision making.
It requires special skill to be able to convey to others why you do what you do without being defensive or giving away your game plan. Trustworthy leaders have a knack for making us feel that we are working side by side with them. When they share their decision-making process so that we can understand their reasoning at each step, we trust them. And we often learn something in the process.
3. They have a non-hostile sense of humor.
In the moment, it might be fun to laugh at someone’s expense. But when we are around someone with a tendency to do this, we may keep our guards up so that we aren’t the target their jokes in the future. It’s hard to relax when we don’t trust the leader to respond in a kind way. Abraham Maslow said one of the most important characteristics of a self-actualized person is a non-hostile sense of humor. Such people have the wisdom to know how to laugh at human nature and circumstances without being cruel about it.
4. They listen.
Listening is more than simply saying “gotcha” at the end of the sentence. A trustworthy leader listens carefully and remembers what’s been said—and what hasn’t been said. They know how to put themselves in others' shoes. They’re equally open to praise and criticism and look for the grain of truth in the criticisms. They know the value of having a devil’s advocate. They appreciate alternative points of view and welcome others’ input in decision-making processes.
5. They have our best interest at heart.
This is different from having our interest at heart when that interest happens to align with theirs. The most trusted leaders are those who will forego personal gain to serve the interest of the group. In Simon Sinek’s book Leaders Eat Last, the author explains how leaders can build trust by creating an environment in which everyone feels safe. When people feel safe, meaning their jobs, homes, or basic sense of security are not being threatened—and the leader sends a clear signal that it’s a priority to maintain their safety—they are much more likely to trust the leader.
6. They have self-awareness and they trust themselves.
A trustworthy leader is self-aware enough to notice and cultivate the qualities mentioned here. Self-trust comes from practiced self-awareness. It’s important to distinguish between phony self-trust, which is defensive and self-centered, and authentic self-trust, which involves listening to oneself with kindness and rigorous honesty. Self-awareness can be cultivated through a meditation or spiritual practice that provides tools for self-inquiry.
Copyright Tara Well, 2017, all rights reserved.
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Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. Harper.
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Salzberg, S. (2013). Real Happiness at Work. Workman Press.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last. Penguin.
Walter, F., Humphrey, R. H., & Cole, M.S. (2012). Unleashing leadership potential: Toward an evidence-based management of emotional intelligence. Organizational Dynamics, 41, 212–219.