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Trusting Leaders

The title is a double entendre.

Trust is the essence of leadership. ~ Colin Powell (found here)

In the wake of the Great Recession, many countries are experiencing a crisis of trust. Trust in leaders of industry and trust in government are low. Many people feel that leaders have not only failed to anticipate the recession, but have actively facilitated it and that the government has failed to punish those responsible. Many leaders who contributed to the recession also seem to profit from public efforts to repair it (Stiglitz, 2012). The opposite of trust is not so much distrust, but cynicism. A climate of cynicism is not healthy for a society.

A crisis of trust implies a crisis of leadership because leadership without trust is impossible. A person is not a leader unless others are willing to follow. The social sciences, the trade book market, and the blogosphere have a lot to say about how leaders may inspire trust and how they can build and maintain it. Trust is essential to the legitimacy of leadership. Without legitimacy, leaders are mere bureaucratic figures or tyrants.

Business leaders are understandably concerned with how those they lead perceive them and with maintaining a base of trust and goodwill. Many understand that ruling is more expensive than leading to everyone involved. In economic terms, leading is more efficient than ruling because it saves the costs of monitoring, regulating, and enforcing transactions.

It is also understandable that leaders, and those who aspire to be, are the primary consumers of the literature on trust. The guiding question of this literature is how to be trusted. There is little on how to be trusting. When trust is construed as flowing from the bottom to the top in a hierarchical environment, the question of how leaders may trust the led does not come up. Trust, according to the prevalent view, is something that employees (might) give and that leaders (managers, executives) hope to receive.

How does one build trust? An old-fashioned notion, but a no less valid one, is that trust needs to be earned. Leaders can earn trust over time by reliably showing their trustworthiness, by rewarding trust and avoiding betrayals, and by making instant amends when they lapse in their trustworthiness. I read few business books because most of them are banal or wrong. I made an exception for David Horsager’s The Trust Edge. Horsager sets out to take a comprehensive, bi-directional look at trust. Besides, it is understood that the author of a book on trust makes a trust claim. If the author of a trust book cannot trusted, cynicism is redoubled.

Horsager endorses the traditional view that trust must be earned. He organizes his book as a list [business writers love lists] of 8 pillars of trust. Starting from the uncontroversial idea that trusted leaders fare better than untrusted ones, Horsager proposes that leaders develop the following qualities:

[1] Clarity

[2] Compassion

[3] Character

[4] Competence

[5] Commitment

[6] Connection

[7] Contribution

[8] Consistency

[Business writers also love alliterations] While most of these terms need no elaboration, some do. By character, for example, Horsager means a combination of integrity (= consistency) and “high morals.” Psychologists are less enamored with lists because they worry about redundancies. In the present case one notices, for example, that the concept of consistency appears twice. Psychologists try to cover as much ground as possible with as few concepts as necessary. Adherents of the Big-5 personality framework may note that Horsager’s most trusted person is someone who scores high on agreeableness (compassion), conscientiousness (consistency), and intellect (competence). Horsager has little to say about extroversion or emotional stability, although both might contribute to trustworthiness. If redundancy is one problem, omitting relevant variables is another.

A person who has these characteristics is on the road to being trusted. However, there is little that is uniquely associated with trustworthiness. The most trustworthy person is simply an overall good person. Alexander Todorov (2008) did elegant experiments at Princeton University, where he asked how people judge a person’s trustworthiness from a facial photograph. He found that people strongly discriminate between faces they find trustworthy and those they do not and that they show a high level of consensus in their judgments. Their accuracy is still being investigated because mere agreement does not guarantee it. Interestingly, in Todorov’s data, judgments of trustworthiness were nearly identical to judgments of likeability. On the face of it, Horsagers fine-grained list aims more specifically at trustworthiness than at general likeability, but one must wait for the appropriate empirical tests.


After reviewing the 8 pillars, Horsager offers a chapter on extending trust. Here, he gingerly sticks his foot into the bog of trusting others, noting that it is even harder than developing one’s own trustworthiness. Most of this material is anecdotal, but the impression he creates (correctly, I assume) is that leaders who trust their employees will in turn receive more trust from them. As such, extending trust could be the ninth pillar of becoming trusted. As in most chapters, Horsager relies heavily on personal experience. Time and again, his wife, kids, parents, grandparents, and siblings (and god, to whom the book is also dedicated) emerge as role models. With this family-friendly approach Horsager can connect with many readers, though not perhaps with business leaders or academics. The empirical base he offers is embarrassingly thin. In the chapter on extending trust, there is only one reference to an empirical article (Douglas & Zivnuska, 2008). As it turns out, though, Douglas & Zivnuska were also more concerned, like everyone else, with trust in leaders than trust by leaders. The authors collected data only from the led, not from the leaders. One wishes for better because the message is important. Lao-tzu observed 2.5k years ago that if you want to be trusted, you need to be trusting yourself.

When better research comes along, it will be interesting to see how a person’s standing in a hierarchy affects the willingness to trust. As leaders have more alternatives to act at their disposal than employees do, they may overall be less trusting. Some may misperceive their own decisions to trust as a sign of weakness.

Douglas, C., & Zivnuska, S. (2008). Developing trust in leaders: An antecedent of firm performance. SAM Advanced Management Journal, 73, 20-27

Horsager, D. (2009). The trust edge. How top leaders gain faster results, deeper relationships, and a stronger bottom line. New York: Free Press.

Stiglitz, J. E. (2012). The price of inequality: How today’s divided society endangers our future. New York: Norton.

Todorov, A. (2008). Evaluating faces on trustworthiness. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1124, 208–224.

Other posts on trust on this blog: 1, 2, 3, 4