Students of leadership in any organization have, at one time or another,  considered defined leadership competencies as a road map of sorts for personal growth.  Often grouped under headings such as “Leading Self, Leading Others, and Leading Change – and typically numbering between between twenty-five and thirty –  they represent the qualities, talents, and abilities that make up the perfect leader.   All five military services have adopted formal definitions of leadership competencies.  So have NASA and even (sorry) the IRS.

Now I have been to Leadership and Management School (LAMS), and the Chief Petty Officer Academy, and I even snuck my way into a Commandant’s Performance Excellence Criteria (CPEC) Facilitators course at the Leadership Development Center in New London, Connecticut.  So given my pay-grade, I’ve learned as much about leadership competence as anyone. But for all of that instruction and study there has been something huge missing. As complete as they appear, something critical is being left out. What is missing is that pervasive competency that threads its way through all of the others, but is rarely identified and talked about even less. Without it, most are impossible to achieve.  And the ones that don’t require it are critical to creating it for the others.

In my organization’s definitions of the competencies, the word “trust” only appears three times: once in Respect for Others and Diversity Management and twice in Team Building. In our 90 page Leadership Development Framework instruction it gets two more nods, but no real discussion. But answer honestly; can you imagine trying to resolve conflict with people who don’t trust you? Are you open to being mentored by a boss you don’t trust? Is there any chance at all your political savvy will do you any real good if no one in the political structure of your organization has faith in your motivations? And, though it isn’t mentioned in the official description of the competency, is it at all possible for you to truly influence others if they don’t completely trust you? Not a chance.

I’m not suggesting we rewrite the books (okay, maybe I am), but studying and developing leadership chops without digging deep into the issue of trust is like studying surgery but neglecting that whole scalpel thing : All potential… action.

No trust ═ no leadership competence:     Period.

Trustworthiness Factor:

The thing about Trust as a competency, unlike say Self Awareness and Learning is that people constantly think about it. Your boss, your subordinates, your peers and partners, everyone around you is assigning levels a trust to you with every action you take and every thing you say. In Transparency by Warren Bennis, Daniel Goleman, and James O’Toole, they state that “Employees do not speak truth to power because they do not trust how those above them will respond.” Levels of trust are considered, talked about, and complained about….in your office. If you are in a leadership position of any kind, then you are (really) being placed in one of four “Trust” positions.

1) Trustworthy The people around you have learned (by observation) that you can be trusted, that you mean what you say, and that your motivations are honorable. Note: Honorable motivation becomes a critical requirement if you expect forgiveness for a mistake.

2) Unknown You are a new arrival who has received no ill report from previous coworkers, but you have not had the opportunity (or taken the opportunity) to develop trust. This is a phase though and won’t last long – with each passing day at work, you are sliding up or down on the T-scale.

3) Suspect This category is a sort of purgatory from which you can be pulled in either direction based on your behavior. Discussions about you include phrases like “Yea, but remember that time when he…,” and, “… that’s what he told me last time and look what happened.”

4) Untrustworthy You have developed, through your actions or language, a reputation for one of several negative traits that all mean that you cannot be trusted. Capricious, two-faced, self-serving, and/or deceitful actions on your part have led others (in whole or in part) to not trust you. This is a completely transferable trait that follows you, just as easily as your luggage, from job to job.

Ones and Fours, you know who you are. It’s obvious when you are at either extreme in matters relating to trust. However, falling in the middle is kind of like being tipsy at your daughters wedding; everyone notices but you.

It is important to understand that your trustworthiness factor can be a 3 or 4 without you ever telling a lie. Trustworthiness is not solely about truthfulness (though no one trusts a liar). You can be completely honest in everything you do and still lose (or fail to develop) trust from the people around you.

Up Your T-Factor:

In his article for the Harvard Business Review, Nobody Trusts The Boss Completely — Now What?, Dr. Fernando Bartolomé, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Instituto De Empresa in Madrid identified six things that must be in place if you expect your people to trust you.

  1. Communication
  2. Support
  3. Respect
  4. Fairness
  5. Predictability
  6. Competence

Bartolomé suggests that how well (or how poorly) you exercise these six areas is how far you go (or how short you fall) in engendering trust as a leader.


I know that saying, “Communication is key” is trite. It is a worn out as a phrase and has so little meaning that I can hardly stand to even write the word “communication”. First of all, it allows for too broad a definition. Memos, instructions, training videos, message traffic and the worst tool ever developed for “critical conversation”…e-mail… can all be listed under the heading of communication. While they all have their place, face-to-face communication is what forms trust. You have to talk to your people, while looking them in the eyes. As a group and individually, they have to talk with you. They need to know that you will listen to them and that you welcome and encourage them to come and talk to you…for good stuff or bad. To earn trust you must “talk” with, and not just “communicate” at, your people. It is way more about what you hear from them rather than what you say to them.


The idea of support is critical. Your people have to know that you are there for them; when it’s easy and when it’s hard. Your supervisors and peers have to feel the same way. You don’t have to be all things to all people, but you have to be willing to allow yourself to care about all the people on your team.  More importantly, they have to believe it.  Ask yourself this question:  If one of your team members was in trouble and needed help, would you be the person they came to first? Who they come to first is who they trust the most and if its not you, than you have some work to do.


Courtesy and respect for all, up and down the chain, is something your people should feel from you all the time. Not just because it is the right thing to do (and it is) but because nothing speaks so loudly about how you feel about yourself like the way you treat others. This is important not just in direct actions towards a person; of course, you need to be respectful to someone you are talking to; but you must also (and at least as importantly) be respectful to someone you are talking about. Talking disrespectfully about someone to a peer or subordinate may feel like your bringing them into some secret circle of “us” and “them”, but it really turns you into one of “them.” Disrespect in any direction – and for any reason – makes you look untrustworthy.  Talk bad about someone else to a subordinate and they (always) think,  “If he talks bad about her behind her back, what does he say about me behind mine?” This “trash-talk” factor is the most pervasive and quiet destroyer of trust in any organization. To simplify this concept, just remember that the trust your people have in you is directly proportional to the amount of time spent talking to them, and inversely proportional to the amount of time spent talking about them. (write that down and keep it where you can see it)

“If we don’t start trusting our children, how will they ever become trustworthy”

~ Reverend Moore (from the movie Footloose – Bet you didn’t expect that one)

Trust also must be given not only to those who have earned it, but also to those who have yet to lose it. This is particularly true in the area of delegation. True delegation is not telling someone what to do, and then checking on them twice a day. That is an open display of mistrust. Telling someone what needs to be done, why, and what resources they have to ensure success, setting a deadline and letting them run with that project; THAT is true delegation. It shows respect for their ability to handle it, and your trust in them that it will get done. The minute you look over their shoulder and ask, “So how’s it going?” You say to the person, “I don’t trust you to finish this so here I am, long before the deadline, checking your progress to make sure you’re not screwing up.” …..You’ve lost them.

The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They think “we”; they think “team.” They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but “we” gets the credit…. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.

~ Peter Drucker


You can be one of the “life is not fair” types if you want to, but you’ll find yourself reaping the fruit of that sewn seed later. Perhaps life isn’t fair, but your workplace should be. You should be fair when reprimanding and praising. You need to be fair when assigning responsibilities and duty assignments. Most importantly, you must be fair when accepting credit for anything. What do I mean? I mean that if your people break their backs (or just strain them) in accomplishing a task and they see you taking the credit for it, it’s over. You are NOT to be trusted.

I first learned this lesson in the Navy on the USS Coral Sea.   I worked for a Chief that lost his teams trust this way. Though we must have had our good times, twenty-one years later when I think of him, I only remember this one incident.   My immediate supervisor, Dave O’Hara, along with Ralph Hudak, Danny Bain, Mitch Reason and I set out one morning to replace the cooling coil for our  main AC system. The Chief had been complaining about how long it was going to take to get fixed, so we decided (well, Dave did) to do the work ourselves and surprise the Chief with a cool shop by the end of the day. For those of you who don’t know what replacing a coiling-coil means, we decided (a bunch of electronics geeks: Ralph still used a slide rule) to disconnect and lower 322 lbs of soaking wet copper coils and radiators connected to the ships chilled water system. Lowering it by hand to the deck (without killing anyone, thank you) we hoisted the replacement into place, aligned the flanges (of a 322 pound hunk of copper) and bolted all supports in place.

The three hour effort, which was scheduled to be done by the shipyard workers two weeks later (it was August), saved the Navy $800.00 (it was 1985) in labor costs, but more importantly got our shop up and running two weeks earlier than expected. At risk was millions of dollars in avionics test benches that liked things cool and dry. We sat there, soaked in sweat under the now working A.C. system, admiring one of the toughest jobs any Tweet ever attempted. We were looking beat up as ever with Hudak still catching his breath (while smoking a cigarette) when our Chief, in his crisp, dry Khakis walked up with the division officer and announced, “Look Commander, I got the coiling coil replaced. I didn’t want to wait for the ship-yard. Now my shop will be up and running ahead of schedule!” ….. We never trusted him again. Not really, not ever.

There is no other way to put this: You cannot be out for yourself. You must be out for them, and there is no wiggle room here. Sure, watch out for number one and you might advance…but keep that crap up and you’ll die unhappy and bitter without the respect of your grandchildren.

~ Me


You have to be consistent. Your people should have a pretty good idea how you are going to react to a given situation. Part of trust is trusting in your consistency. You have to keep your promises. You have to do what you say you are going to do; all the time, every time. There is nothing more disheartening to someone that works for you than to realize that your promises are meaningless.

This can also be about fairness.  You can’t get mildly upset at one person for being late, and then put the next person who is late on formal report.   This kind of inconsistency makes you unpredictable, and that makes trusting you difficult.


Finally, in order to engender trust, you must have at least some of the answers. You have to know what you’re doing. Your people must believe when you give them advice, or direction, or general guidance (work related or not) that you know what your talking about. This applies not only to technical competencies – i.e. good at the job you ask them to do; but also to the unique skills and abilities required by those in charge – i.e. good at the jobs you have to do that they don’t. If part of your job is helping your subordinates (and it is) with pay and personnel issues, then you had better be part expert on pay and personnel issues. If they need you to help them with their career development (and they do), than you had better know all there is to know about how to develop their career.

So there it is. Trust may be the single greatest problem any leader or manager ever faces. And I may be completely off base here, but I believe that if you don’t first handle the issue of trust, nothing else you do in an attempt to effectively manage your people will matter.

disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.

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