Trust – The Heart of Leadership

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Do we need another article on leadership? There have been so many articles on this topic that it’s easy to find some of the most renowned leaders sharing their insights on the qualities a leader should have to instill trust in leadership. Peter Ducker, the guru of leadership, Steve Forbes, a billionaire publisher, and Jack Welch, a famous GE CEO and business analyst, have all written extensively on leadership. There are lists of leadership qualities that provide 22 qualities of a great leader, 21 indispensable qualities, ten most important features of leadership, nine leadership traits, the seven virtues a leader needs, the four cornerstones on which a qualified leader builds his company, etc. It’s all available online and on bookshelves.

“I have been there and done that.” Over the years of being a leader, I have read countless articles on this topic, as well as checklists and guiding aids. For all the written advice, I have come to distill it down to one simple human reality: we need a heart to pump lifeblood into the body’s system. Of all the vital organs we have, the heart takes on a life-giving role. As leaders, in my opinion, we need a singularly life-giving quality of relationships: trust. Trust in leadership is paramount. Let’s compare trust to the heart.

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In the article, “You Can’t Be A Great Leader Without Trust – Here’s How You Build It” from Forbes, it says, “Among all the attributes of the greatest leaders of our time, one stands above the rest: They are all highly trusted.” Trust is earned in a relationship and shows up in the communication patterns between people. One of the delicate aspects of leadership is positional status. Conversations that build trust steer clear of “one-upmanship.” Without losing sight of the levels of responsibilities in corporate settings, conversations must be based on trust: both what truth is being shared and what confidentiality must be preserved. Though this might seem like a fine line to follow, it is an atmosphere of respect between mature individuals who are inspired by the same vision of purpose. Healthy trust in a relationship is like a healthy heart in the body.

It might happen that a note of uncertainty comes into a situation. This could become “the elephant in the room” if a trustful leader does not have the transparency to honestly call it for what it is and trusts that the employee grasps the reality of this uncertainty. Uncertainty can trigger the amygdala, the alarm system of the emotions, to release cortisol from the adrenals, the anxiety hormone, into the blood and other body fluids. A trusting conversation will discuss the uncertainty for what it is without any implications for the individual or possible indictment. Such a conversation prevents and calms the fear response of the amygdala to maintain the relationship of trust when uncertainty is present. As one’s heart excitedly pumps in the case of stress, it will quiet down once the stress is over. A trusted leader can calm uncertainty with appropriate transparency.

Trust holds the same qualities as Carl Rogers’ “unconditional positive regard.” Trust, like love, is unconditional, positive, and affirming; it is respect for the dignity of the other person within the context of the conversation. The accompanying sense of warmth in this trusting relationship results in a flow of oxytocin, the hormone of good feelings and healthy companionship. The physiological processes of fear and trust are further explained in my book, Conversational Intelligence.

Steps to Build Trust

The same Forbes article, “You Can’t Be A Great Leader Without Trust – Here’s How You Build It,” proposes eight steps to build trust:

  1. Clarity – say what you mean
  2. Compassion – respectful regard for the other
  3. Character – personal integrity
  4. Contribution – follow up with results
  5. Competency – open to new learning
  6. Connection – maintain relations
  7. Commitment – in the face of no matter what
  8. Consistency – whether in big or little things


This seems like a healthy heart checklist for any leader to assess his/her leadership patterns with everyone who is touched in the context of corporate vision and mission.

Headshot of Judith Cardenas
Judith Cardenas, Ph.D.

Judith Cardenas, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of Strategies By Design, a consulting firm specializing in behavior design and innovation. She holds a Doctorate in education administration and training and leadership development from Harvard. With certifications in corporate coaching, ROI, innovation, and service design, she has served clients such as the UN and U.S. Navy.

Connect with Judith on LinkedIn.

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