The Four Qualities Of Trustworthy Leadership

“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.”
The Bible

Yes, that’s what the Bible said thousands of years ago. It said your “name” or your reputation was one of the most important, most powerful assets you could ever possess.

But if the Biblical wording sounds too stuffy or old-fashioned for you, try this: “Trust is a must or the relationship will bust.” In other words, if you have a “good name,” if you are “esteemed” by others, if you are trusted by others, you have one of the most powerful leadership tools you could ever possess.

One successful business person made that quite clear. He was growing old and knew it was time to choose a successor to take over the business. Instead of choosing one of his directors or his children, he decided to do something different. He called all the young executives in his company together.

He said, “It is time for me to step down and choose the next CEO. I have decided to choose one of you.”

The young executives were shocked, but the boss continued. “I am going to give each one of you a SEED today – one very special SEED. I want you to plant the seed, water it, and come back here one year from today with what you have grown from the seed I have given you. I will then judge the plants that you bring, and the one I choose will be the next CEO.”

One man, named Jim was there that day and he, like the others, received a seed. He went home and excitedly, told his wife the story. She helped him get a pot, soil and compost, and he planted the seed.

Everyday, he would water it and watch to see if it had grown. After about three weeks, some of the other executives began to talk about their seeds and the plants that were beginning to grow. Jim kept checking his seed, but nothing ever grew. Three weeks, four weeks, five weeks went by, still nothing.

By now, others were talking about their plants, but Jim didn’t have a plant and he felt like a failure. Six months went by – still nothing in Jim’s pot. He just knew he had killed his seed. Everyone else had trees and tall plants, but he had nothing. Jim didn’t say anything to his colleagues, however. He just kept watering and fertilizing the soil … in hopes the seed would grow.

A year finally went by and all the young executives of the company brought their plants to the CEO for inspection. Jim told his wife that he wasn’t going to take an empty pot. But she asked him to be honest about what happened. Jim felt sick to his stomach. It was going to be the most embarrassing moment of his life, but he knew his wife was right.

He took his empty pot to the board room. When Jim arrived, he was amazed at the variety of plants grown by the other executives. They were beautiful – in all shapes and sizes. Jim put his empty pot on the floor and many of his colleagues laughed. A few felt sorry for him.

When the CEO arrived, he surveyed the room and greeted his young executives. Jim just tried to hide in the back.

“My, what great plants, trees, and flowers you have grown,” said the CEO. “Today one of you will be appointed the next CEO!”

All of a sudden, the CEO spotted Jim at the back of the room with his empty pot. He ordered the financial director to bring him to the front. Jim was terrified. He thought, “The CEO knows I’m a failure! Maybe he will have me fired!”

When Jim got to the front, the CEO asked him what had happened to his seed, and Jim told him the story.

The CEO asked everyone to sit down except Jim. He looked at Jim, and then announced to the young executives, “Behold your next Chief Executive Officer! His name is Jim!”

Jim couldn’t believe it. Jim couldn’t even grow his seed. “How could he be the new CEO?” the others asked.

Then the CEO said, “One year ago today, I gave everyone in this room a seed. I told you to take the seed, plant it, water it, and bring it back to me today. But I gave you all boiled seeds. They were dead. It was not possible for them to grow. All of you, except Jim, have brought me trees and plants and flowers. When you found that the seed would not grow, you substituted another seed for the one I gave you.”

“Jim was the only one with the courage and honesty to bring me a pot with my seed in it. Therefore, he is the one who will be the new Chief Executive!”

And I, Dr. Alan Zimmerman, might add … Jim was the only one who could be trusted. And that’s critical — because trust is one of the indispensable keys to successful leadership.

But trust cannot be mandated. It MUST BE earned and CAN BE earned if you consistently employ four qualities. According to leadership guru Warren Bennis, those four qualities are constancy, congruity, reliability, and integrity. He explains them in his book, “On Becoming A Leader.” Here’s my take on the four qualities.

=> 1. Constancy

We all know that leadership requires vision … a vision that looks beyond the current reality. And great leaders dream that the impossible can become possible.

But a vision … in and of itself … does not breed trust. There has to be a CONSTANCY … which means you stay the course. You stick with the vision.

And that takes guts — especially when you’re surrounded by nay-sayers. Nonetheless, as publisher Henry George Bohn wrote in the 1800’s, “Boldness in business is the first, second, and third thing.”

Eventually, your CONSTANCY to vision will earn the trust of others … as well as their motivation. As President John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

True. And with Constancy in place, the second ingredient in trust building is…

=> 2. Congruity

In other words, as the leader, your values and beliefs should be obvious and congruent in everything you say and do. You walk your talk … all the time … no matter what. And it’s that kind of congruity that earns the trust of others.

Michael Volkeman, the chairman of The Herman Miller Furniture Company, preaches that. He says, “Leadership is about doing the right thing, not the easy thing.” And the right thing is standing up for what you believe.

Senator Barbara Boxer echoes a similar sentiment. She says, “If all you do is take the path of least resistance, because you’re afraid of not being loved, then you don’t really stand for much.” And you can’t expect much in the way of other people’s trust.

Put another way, if you ever expect to be an effective leader, you simply CANNOT say one thing and do another. Your words and your actions have got to be consistently congruent. Anything less than total congruity raises doubts and lowers trust.

Beyond that, trust is further built with…

=> 3. Reliability

In other words, you build trust when your coworkers know you’re THERE FOR THEM. You support them in the moments that matter. You’re a reliable source, guide, mentor, and teammate … not a fair-weather friend who sells you out if a better opportunity comes along.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew about that. Even though his persona was bigger than life, and even though his presence was felt around the world, he knew the value of reliability in the smaller moments. He said, “Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones.”

When there’s any question about someone’s reliability, it always lowers the trust level. That became obvious when a customer wrote to an equipment mail-order company and, in a very literal way, requested an engine. What he actually said was, “Please send me the A-1 outboard motor shown on page 200 of your June 2007 catalogue. If the engine is any good, I’ll send you a check.”

The company obviously turned the request over to a customer service rep with a sense of humor, because that service rep wrote back, “Please send us a check. If it’s any good, we’ll send you the engine.”

Finally, trust is built when there’s…

=> 4. Integrity

Simply put, you keep your promises. Or as people used to say, “Your word is your bond. You can take it to the bank. It’s as good as gold.”

Politician John Foster Dulles knew that. He admonished, “A capacity to change is indispensable. Equally indispensable is the capacity to hold fast to that which is good.” And I would add, hold fast to doing what you said you were going to do.

The latest research on emotional intelligence affirms it. As Dan Hill reports, “A CEO must protect his or her credibility above all else.” And nothing builds up or shoots down credibility quicker than keeping or not keeping your promises.

So how do YOU stack up on integrity? Do your people trust you to follow through … to keep your promises?

And taking it a step further, do you say what you mean and mean what you say? No double talk? And no fast talk?

You’d better hope so. As educator Alfred Kahn pointed out, “If you can’t explain what you’re doing in simple English, you are probably doing something wrong.” And that, in turn, will lower the trust in your relationships.

Action:  Write down the 4 qualities of effective, trusted leadership: Constancy, Congruity, Reliability, and Integrity.

Then grade yourself on each quality from an A (excellent) to an F (failing). And get to work on those qualities where you receive a B or lower grade.