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Trust Based Leadership

What is the most important resource effective leaders possess? In my opinion, trust.

Formal position does not make a leader. Followers make a leader. During battle, why do soldiers look to the crusty sergeant for leadership rather than turning to the green lieutenant? Trust. The soldiers want leadership from the sergeant because they trust him more than they trust the lieutenant. Simply put, the more followers trust their leader, the more willing they are to follow. Trust in a leader brings about many positive organizational outcomes, including increased performance efficiency and effectiveness, reduced turnover and greater adaptability. A leader-follower relationship based on trust also makes for a more positive work environment.

The leader benefits as well. Highly trusted leaders spend less time convincing followers to comply with directions. Perhaps more importantly, when followers have a high level of trust in their leader, the leader can better trust the followers. In other words, trust begets trust. The trusted leader has fewer issues with followers trying to game the system or resist change. So, the trusted leader spends less time monitoring followers. (There’s a great Machiavelli quote about this; “… a prince should not worry too much about conspiracies, as long as his people are devoted to him; but when they are hostile, and feel hatred toward him, he should fear everything and everybody.”) Finally, the trusted leader’s power and influence are largely independent of the formal position in the organizational hierarchy.

Why is this the case? Power comes from two sources – coercion and persuasion. Someone with coercive power controls key resources (such as money, information, access to others). These sources of power largely depend on things external to the individual; typically, these carrots and sticks are tied closely to one’s position in the organization. Contrast this with persuasive power, which emanates from an individual’s character and abilities. Characteristics such as expertise, understanding, empathy, intelligence and motivation are the hallmarks of persuasive power. Unlike the roots of coercive power, the foundations of persuasive power survive the loss of formal position.

Trusted leaders rely on persuasive power much more than coercive power. In fact, the core characteristics and abilities of persuasive power align closely with characteristics of trustworthy individuals. Leaders who use persuasive power naturally become more trusted by their followers. There’s an interesting reciprocal relationship between trust and persuasive power. A leader who relies on persuasion is more likely to be trusted by followers. This trust then makes persuasion easier and more effective. When followers trust their leader, they are less likely to question the leader’s motives or abilities. This works in the other direction as well. When trust declines, followers are more suspicious and harder to persuade. Wise leaders keep this in mind.

Trusted leaders especially shine when times are difficult. Trusted leaders keep their followers’ needs in mind when making decisions. Their followers know this, making them more receptive to difficult changes. Followers who don’t trust their leader question the motives behind every decision and change. Followers of trusted leaders are also more committed to both the leader and the organization. This commitment is often the difference between organizations that survive hard times and those that become yet another casualty. Trusted leaders are not only trusted, they’re survivors. Over the next few columns, we’ll dig deeper into trust-based leadership.

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Written by Craig Van Slyke

The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to more than 2,700 undergraduate and master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see:





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