The Trust Edge: How to Build Leadership Based on Trust

This is the first in a series of articles revolving around topics that were presented at NLC's 20th Annual Leadership Summit in Charlotte, N.C. The program, titled "Leadership That Leaves a Legacy" addressed themes of leadership, trust, change, courage, and the personal challenges of serving as a leader in local government.

We are in crisis. What's more, our biggest crisis is not the financial one. Last year, at the World Economic Forum in China, world leaders declared that our biggest crisis is a lack of trust and confidence. We are in a trust crisis and few people really understand the bottom line implications. Not only does it affect credit and government relations, but every relationship and every organization. Professor John Whitney of the Columbia Business School found, "Mistrust doubles the cost of doing business." I think it costs even more. Trust is not just a "soft skill" - it is the fundamental key to all lasting success.

Without trust, leaders lose teams and sales people lose sales. Without trust we all lose productivity, retention of good people, reputation, morale and revenue. The lower the trust the more time everything takes, the more everything costs and the lower the loyalty of everyone involved. However, with greater trust come greater innovation, creativity, freedom, morale and a bigger bottom line.

All of my Master's research points to the fact that trust is the unique commonality of the most successful leaders and organizations. Obtaining this level of trust isn't easy. If you are looking for a quick fix, don't look to trust. While it may appear to be static, in reality it is more like a forest - a long time growing, but easily burned down with a touch of carelessness. Trust is, by nature, solid and proven. Without trust, no lasting genuine success exists - just a brittle, fluffy mirage of the real thing. The good news is that we can build this fundamental key to success. It is worth it! And it is the ONLY way to genuine, relational organizational success. The following is a synopsis of the eight pillars that build the Trust Edge.

1. Consistency: It's the little things, done consistently, that make the big difference. In every area of life, it is the little things. If I am overweight, it is because I have eaten too many calories over time, not because I ate too much yesterday. If I am a good husband, I am doing the little things that honor my wife on a daily basis. It is the same in business. The little things, done consistently, make for leaders being followed, increased sales and retention and a higher level of trust. Consistency is the way brands are built and character is revealed. Even if we don't like McDonald's, we trust them because they deliver the same burger in Cleveland as in Tokyo. Do the little things, consistently.

2. Clarity: People trust the clear and mistrust or distrust the ambiguous. Be clear about your mission, purpose, expectations and daily activities. When people are clear about the mission, they do the little things differently. A clear mission unifies and inspires. When a manager is clear in expectations, she will likely get what she wants. When we are clear about priorities on a daily basis we become productive and effective.

3. Compassion: Think beyond yourself. Never underestimate the power of sincerely caring. It is the reason we trust our mothers over salespeople - we are skeptical regarding whether the salesperson really has our best interest in mind. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is not just an old saying, it is a bottom-line truth. If followed, it builds trust.

4. Character: Do what is right over what is easy. Character is a mix of two things. One is integrity, which means being the consistent across beliefs, words and actions. The other is moral character. It could be argued that Hitler had great integrity but low moral character. Most people know what is right. It is doing what's right that is the difficult. We know we should respond to that e-mail or stop watching TV and exercise or read to the kids. Take the high road in every interaction.

5. Contribution:
 Few things build trust quicker than actual results. Be a contributor that delivers real results!

6. Competency: Staying fresh, relevant and capable builds trust. The humble, teachable person keeps learning new and better ways of doing things. They stay current on ideas and trends. According to one study, the key competency of new MBAs is not a specific skill, but rather the ability to learn amidst chaos. Arrogance and a "been-there-done-that" attitude keep people from growing. There is always more to learn, so make a habit of reading, learning and listening to fresh information.

7. Connection: People want to follow, buy from and be around friends. People become friends when they build connection. Ask questions. Listen. Life, work and trust are about relationships. All relationships are best built by establishing genuine connection.

8. Commitment: Stick with it through adversity. Followers trusted General Patton, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Jesus and George Washington because they saw commitment. They saw sacrifice for the greater good. Commitment reveals and builds trust.

Trust does not start with the economy or government. It starts with individuals becoming trusted. When will we get out of this trust crisis? When we, as individuals, decide to build the Trust Edge on a daily basis. Build your trust. Keep on being trusted, and shape your legacy as a trusted local leader.

David Horsager, M.A., C.S.P, is an author, entrepreneur, award-winning keynote speaker and university professor who researches and speaks on the bottom-line impact of trust. His signature book, "The Trust Edge," has inspired leaders and motivated teams toward greater results across the U.S. and around the world on four continents.

 The annual Leadership Summit is NLC's premiere leadership development program for local officials. Designed as a leadership retreat, the summit provides personal leadership development that is focused on community perspectives. For more information, contact the Leadership Training Institute at (202) 626-3170 or visit