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One of the most important leadership traits has taken a hit. Here’s how to get it back

A Q&A with author Stephen M.R. Covey reveals fundamental leadership principles and that trust is a learnable skill.

One of the most important leadership traits has taken a hit. Here’s how to get it back
[Source illustration: undefined undefined/Getty Images]

Trust and leadership are critical to navigating today’s uncertain times when misinformation is on the rise and virtual interactions limit our ability to truly connect with each other. Often trust seems binary—it either exists or it doesn’t. Not so, says Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust and his latest book, Trust & Inspire: How Truly Great Leaders Unleash Greatness in Others 

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Discussing the release of Trust & Inspire, the best-selling author shared the two biggest insights from his research and decades of client work through consulting firm Covey Worldwide and the Franklin Covey Global Trust Practice: Trust is a learnable skill, and two trustworthy people can have no trust between them.  

“In the same way you can either diminish or lose trust through your behavior, you can also consciously create it, grow it, extend it, and, in some cases, restore it through your behavior,” Covey says. “People often focus more on being personally trustworthy versus seeing the same in others. The bigger gap in most organizations today is actually on the trusting side. It’s not enough to be trustworthy; you also need to be trusting.”

Future leaders should take note:

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“Trust-and-inspire leadership is not soft, weak, without expectations and accountability. Trust-and-inspire leaders can be authoritative without being authoritarian. You can be decisive without being autocratic. You can be visionary without being exclusive. You can be strong without being forceful. You can be detail oriented without being distrusting. You can have control without being controlling.”

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation on all things trust, command-and-control management, and how flawed individuals (all of us) can learn, grow and become truly great leaders.  

Anne Marie Squeo: Is trust like beauty and in the eye of the beholder?  

Stephen Covey: To some degree, yes. But in another sense, no. Trust is a perception, and you can measure perceptions through anonymous surveys to see the level of confidence someone may have in a team or a leader. You can benchmark it, track it, and see it move and grow. You can measure the inputs and the overall outcome and quantify it. We tend to value what we can measure, and we work on what we can measure. And the idea you can measure trust is a big idea. So in that sense, less in the eye of the beholder. Using common criteria, we can see the level of confidence people have in our team and we have in each other. 

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AMS: Transparency is a huge part of leadership. Can you be too transparent?

SC: People want a leader they have confidence in. But the fear of being too vulnerable is bigger than the reality of it. People are so worried about losing people’s confidence that they put on a front and are not as authentic and vulnerable. Our bigger problem is we’re not vulnerable enough, not transparent enough. We acknowledge you can go too far. But if people see you as a human being, you’re working on things and you’re not perfect—people relate to that and can build trust. Think of intimacy, the word: Vulnerability is intimacy. The word is literally in-to-me-see. Our bigger problem is not that we’re too vulnerable, but that we’re not vulnerable enough. My test would be if people would literally lose confidence in me if they knew something.  

AMS: How can you tell if someone you work with is trustworthy, and are there certain characteristics we should look for? 

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SC: Another way of saying trustworthiness is credibility. You’re trying to assess their character and competence, and that makes a person credible. If someone had character alone without competence, you’d have a hard time trusting them even though they’re a good person. The flip side is clearly true: If a person is high in competence but is low in character, they can get the job done but maybe they run over everyone doing it. You’d have a hard time trusting [them].  

On the character side, you’re looking at their integrity and intent. Are they seeking mutual benefit or are just self-serving? On the competence side, you’re looking both at their track record and their capabilities. Are they current and relevant? You want to see both. Looking at character and competence and making a judgment of how much trust to extend. But sometimes if there’s fundamental character there and someone is a work in progress, sometimes the very act of extending trust is what will enable them to build more competence, to grow because someone gave me a chance. That’s the whole idea of trust and inspire to see the greatness inside of people.  

AMS: What advice would you give leaders to transition from command-and-control to the trust-and-inspire approach? 

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SC: It’s starts with your fundamental beliefs in how you see people and how you see leadership. Many managers have a growth mindset for themselves, but not for others. If your beliefs about people is that you have to contain and control them and don’t see the greatness inside of them, then it’ll be very hard to migrate with integrity to trust and inspire. You have to challenge your fundamental beliefs, your paradigm. Behavior flows from paradigm. The quickest way to change your behavior is to change your paradigm—how you view the world, how you view people.  

That’s why we outline the fundamental beliefs of a trust-and-inspire leader versus command-and-control leader. They see people as whole people, not just economic means. Body, heart, mind, and spirit. If you see them that way, then your job as a leader is to inspire, not just motivate. But if you only see people as economic means, they’re fungible, they just want money, then I’ll remain in command-and-control, with carrot and stick rewards. I’ll motivate, but I won’t move into inspiration. And if you do view people as whole people, then you have to challenge yourself and ask: Is your current style getting in the way of your intent? Are your actions undermining your beliefs? 

AMS: How would you advise leaders to get through this critical time of returning to the office with a positive outcome?  

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SC: The fundamental most important piece is the paradigm: trust-and-inspire versus command-and-control. Even during the pandemic, a lot of people were working from home and they still didn’t feel trusted; they were just being micromanaged from a distance. If you come back and people still don’t feel trusted, no matter what solution you come up with—all remote, all onsite, hybrid—and the paradigm hasn’t shifted, how that’s going to be experienced by people will be different than if my people see me as a leader or employer that trusts their people. 

There are many right answers, it can be different for different companies. But if you approach it with a leadership style of command-and-control, you can come up with the same answer as another company that approached it by declaring their intent, giving the why, involving their people, and listening, the impact on the people and the culture will be night and day at the two companies because of the process of arriving there. One will feel like you’re doing this to me while the other will feel like we’re doing this together.  

AMS: Can you be a bad person and a great leader?  

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SC: Not over time. You might in the moment, but the test of great leadership is you get results in a way that grows people and builds trust. I’d add two more pieces to it: sustained over time and with all stakeholders. You might be good with shareholders, but are you also doing it with customers, employees, communities? In the long run, that lack of character and credibility will come through. It may not in the short run. We’ve seen a lot of leaders who don’t have strong character and wouldn’t truly be credible or have moral authority. They can do it in the moment and rely on position power or context to do it. But play it out, over time with all stakeholders, the lack of character will be manifest and undermine leadership.  


Anne Marie Squeo is CEO and founder of Proof Point Communications, a boutique marketing and communications firm, and a former Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist.  


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