29 January 2018

7 Ways Trust is a Key International Leadership Quality

Leadership development / Talent Development
leadership quality



Searching for the ideal qualities of a leader is not a recent quest. Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Plato and the Apostle Paul all put forward their ideas of what a leader should be and do. Despite more than 2000 years of scholarship and experience, we haven’t added very much to the qualities the Ancient Greeks considered essential. Discover seven ways trust is a key leadership quality.

If we remove the ideological considerations, Roman and Greek philosophers agreed that a leader should be:

  • Above reproach
  • Temperate
  • Self-controlled
  • Respectable
  • Hospitable
  • Able to teach
  • Not violent, but gentle
  • Sincere

If we look at Eastern philosophy, we have a similar list. Forbes, referring to Confucius’ writing, summarizes like this: a leader must be virtuous, rule wisely and justly, and must act decisively after careful thought. Norman Schwarzkopf, the US General, said,

“Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.”

Leading People, Not Tasks

Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without strategy

In modern discussions about leadership and leadership quality, we tend to focus on the business tasks, such as vision and strategic thinking. This comes from the wrong angle. We don’t lead tasks or processes; we lead people. To condense Western and Eastern leadership philosophy, a leader is an example or model of desired behaviors and should be able to pass on these qualities to others.

Despite the millions of dollars spent on developing corporate leadership behavior models, ancient philosophy and modern research agree that a leader must:

  • Be respected
  • Be calm under pressure
  • Have integrity
  • Be authentic
soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace
soft skills
Soft Skills Development
Building the critical skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace

Building Relationships and Trust

Our focus must, therefore, be on building relationships with the people we lead, rather than on the business in which they work. This is an approach that may be surprising to many leaders, but it makes sense. Folk wisdom states that a wise leader enables people cleverer than they are to achieve more.

Leaders who do not delegate and allow creative thought not only demotivate teams, they drown themselves in micromanagement and less important tasks. To ensure that these tasks are done, the leader must develop two-way trust with the team.

That leaves us with two key questions: how do you develop trust in your team, and how do you get them to trust you?

In many ways, the solution is the same for both questions, and can be summarized in the ISACC model of trust building:


When a leader preaches honesty and sincerity, sets realistic expectations and treats everyone with the same respect and fairness, the team will match this behavior not only in their interactions with the leader but also with their colleagues. A leader who demonstrates integrity does not make unreasonable demands and is consistent in their approach to all team members.

When this is reflected in the team, the leader knows that each individual is putting in consistent effort, and is sharing information effectively.


Strength of character is the quality needed so that you don’t avoid difficult decisions or hide behind your team. Neither you nor your team are defeated by failures but are self-aware enough to adapt and grow so that mistakes are not repeated.

Strength in a leader means that they accept the responsibility, defending team members from unfair or undeserved criticism. It may mean that they will need to accept criticism on behalf of the team as well as personal criticism.

A strong leader is trusted because the team knows that they have the resilience to look after their interests. A strong team is trusted because the leader knows that criticism is taken as a way to improve, and won’t be taken personally.


It is an old saying that public servants are promoted beyond their level of competency, which builds mistrust and resentment.

Leaders who are good at the technical side of the job, and demand high standards of themselves, are able to give good advice, and more importantly able to judge the effort of their team members more effectively. The team knows that they can rely on support where needed from their leader.

When the team is competent, the leader can relax, knowing that the job will be done, and targets achieved.


Credibility is a key element of trust. It is a truism that we trust those who are trustworthy. In other words, if you have demonstrated that you can be trusted, you will be trusted. Do people believe that you will do what you say you will do? Trust is clearly a key leadership quality.

When asked what is the most important factor in building trust, 70% HR professionals in a survey we conducted stated “experience” – in other words, they trusted people who had demonstrated trust in the past. Reliability, consistency and inspiring confidence are also important, but the one that must be present is a track record.


According to linguists, all interaction between people is communication. Building and giving trust is, therefore, a communicative act.

Everything we say, write or even don’t say or don’t write contributes, or takes away from our trust bank. We are more likely to trust someone we have empathy for – communication is the key to building empathy. Rapport, cooperation, influence – all these are built through effective communication.

It is therefore of the highest priority for leaders to understand how to be effective communicators. How they use the tools they have will determine how much they are trusted.

Frequency of communication, formality and method of communication are the simpler aspects. Tone, implicit vs explicit, silence, inference, assumptions… all these impact on how we are perceived by those with whom we communicate. And we haven’t started talking about cultural differences yet!


This article has looked at some of the ways leadership and trust are interdependent and dictate leadership quality. It has not examined specific ways to create that trust – and you should be very wary of anyone who tells you how to do that in simple steps. Trust building must be dependent on the specific context of the leader and the methods used to grow trust will depend both on that leader and on the team. However, these five components are a great model on which to start developing effective, trustworthy leaders.

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