Career & Education

The importance of trust in leadership

BY Kimberly R Seymour-Brown

Sunday, January 06, 2019

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Who determines who is a 'good leader'? Is it the leader? Is it the team being led? Is it the results that the leader brings? What if the team consistently brings excellent results? Can we assume the leadership is exceptional? I've been ruminating on this for some time, and recently had a discussion with some professionals on the matter of what is the number one element of a good leader. We bantered about terminologies such as visionary, accountability, team builder, motivator, and a colleague suggested that a 'good leader brings results' and that should be the end of the discourse.

While this matter of leadership is multifaceted and dynamic, John Maxwell seems to have said it best: “Character makes trust possible, and trust is the foundation of leadership.” It seems that somewhere along the line, this concept of leadership has become so complex with so many top qualities, behaviours, multiple styles, and recommendations as to how it can be achieved that we are losing sight of the basic principle that in order for a group of people to authentically work together, achieve success and collaborate effectively, they must trust each other and they must trust the leader. A study of all successful movements, groups, organisations, and even cults reveal that at the core of their success was trust. The members trusted the leader and on the basis of that trust, they were willing to work towards the goal or ideal, making immeasurable sacrifice in many instances. This trust is not a mere willingness to do as instructed or refrain from speaking negatively of the individual; it's a deep-seated belief that the leader sincerely cares about the success and well-being of each team member while he/she simultaneously balances his/her responsibility to the goals of the organisation. When we trust someone, we feel safe with them and highly regard their advice, even if we don't always agree with it. Trust allows team members to frankly share their perspectives, experiences and analyse them without fear of being ridiculed or dismissed. With a trustworthy leader, there is growth and development of team members, creativity blossoms, and authenticity is a standard. Trust enables camaraderie and nurtures not only peak performance, but high levels of well-being.

On the contrary, if the team does not trust the leader there will be insincerity, passive aggressive behaviour, and an increasing sense of discomfort which will ultimately result in the loss of talent, reduced productivity and a toxic environment. There will be cases where a team may continue to produce results despite negative feelings towards the leadership, but this is typically not sustainable in the long run. As human beings, we are wired to avoid situations that leave us anxious or uncertain, and a toxic leader creates anxiety and other negative experiences.

Leadership goes beyond team-building exercises, power meetings, exceeding targets and award ceremonies. Leadership requires that there is sincerity and an overwhelming desire for the success and development of the team. Leadership enables the most fragile individual to feel that achievement is possible, and when there are challenges, a leader is trusted to deal confidentially and ethically with all involved. The challenge with trust is that it cannot be developed unless it already exists within the leader, and that is where I have found there is a major disconnect. An individual, regardless of his/her education, position, competence or experience, cannot successfully foster a sense of trust among a group of people unless he/she is trustworthy.

While the conversation on leadership is limitless, let us pause and reflect on this core principle, then evaluate where we truly stand.

Kimberly R Seymour-Brown is an international development professional with 15 years of experience in youth and community development with local and international organisations including the US Peace Corps and the Organization of American States. Contact her at

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