By Cathy Converse

If you’ve ever worked in an environment where trust is in short supply, you know how debilitating it can be. Work goes undone as people scramble to protect themselves and try to distinguish fact from fiction. Gossip increases and morale declines. Creativity and innovation come to a screeching halt. Trustworthiness is driven by an organization’s leaders, and it is one of the ten characteristics of courageous leadership, our research has determined.

At Collaborative Momentum Consulting (CMC) we believe strongly that courageous leadership is an important solution to problems that hinder our growth as individuals, groups, organizations and communities today. Through this blog, we will be discussing courageous leadership—the characteristics that make up this type of leadership, the benefits to all of us, and the strategies we can use to expand courageous leadership into all areas of our lives.

Trustworthiness can be defined as engendering trust by being authentic, truthful, and a good role model. While trustworthiness goes both ways, leaders are in the best position to establish a trusting culture.

Trustworthiness in Leadership

People who trust their leaders feel safe asking for advice or help and telling their leader the whole truth, not just what they want to hear. Without this information, leaders cannot be effective. And teams or individuals who don’t trust their leaders are often less productive and creative, because they’re unsure of how the leader will respond to them and their work.

To investigate the degree to which trustworthiness, along with the related concepts of effective leadership and ethical stewardship, were integral to creating value in organizations, Caldwell, et. al. (2010) surveyed 291 college students, asking them to think about a place they currently worked or had previously worked. Their study confirmed that trustworthiness is essential to building personal commitment and trust. They conclude that “great organizations and truly great leaders integrate character and competence to earn the trust of others,” and that “trust in leaders is key to creating added value for organizational stakeholders and increased wealth for society.” Their work supported previous research that found that a lack of trust between leaders and followers undermines employee commitment, impairs the creation of wealth in businesses, and creates increased transaction costs in the organization.

Benefits of Trustworthiness

The benefits of trustworthiness as a leadership characteristic are numerous. People who work for trustworthy leaders are likely to exhibit the following behaviors:

    • Increased commitment to the organization and work
    • Better communication
    • Increased engagement and productivity
    • More receptive to change
    • More willing to share knowledge
    • Less likely to look for another job
    • Happier

Establishing Trust: The Five C’s

Given its importance, how do leaders establish trust? The short answer, according to Brené Brown in her book Daring to Lead, is, in small steps over time. She says, “Trust is the stacking of small moments over time, something that cannot be summoned with a command…You cannot establish trust in two days when you find yourself in an organizational crisis; it’s either already there or it’s not.”

In order to establish a trusting environment and your own reputation as a trustworthy leader, practice the “Five C’s.”

    1. Competence. Numerous studies have shown that it’s difficult for leaders to establish trust if they aren’t themselves competent to carry out their role. Understanding the goals of the organization, staying on top of advances in the field, being able to make sound decisions and carry them out, and being connected to others throughout the organization can help lay the groundwork for a trusting environment.
    2. Consistency. Trustworthy leaders are true to their values and apply them consistently to new situations. While the circumstances may change, one’s values do not. By applying them consistently to a variety of situations, people know what to expect from their leaders and can act accordingly.
    3. Character. It is difficult to trust someone who acts in an unethical or morally questionable way. Trustworthy people tend to be honest, authentic, fair and self-aware. They ‘do what they say and say what they do.’ They act in the best interests of the organization, not themselves.
    4. Considerate. Trustworthy leaders trust others: they give them the benefit of the doubt and have their team’s best interests at heart. This makes people feel safe, and consequently they are more willing to take the sort of risks that are necessary to be innovative.
    5. Communication. Leaders who are trusted are prolific communicators, especially in challenging times. By keeping others informed to the greatest extent possible, they motivate their teams to work together toward a common goal. They set clear expectations and clarify them when necessary, hold tough conversations, are transparent in their decision-making, and are as good at listening as they are at speaking.

By practicing the Five C’s, leaders can create a positive work environment that empowers teams to work productively and collaboratively, weather difficult times, manage change better, and have a strong commitment to the organization. As Brené Brown says, “Trust is the glue that holds teams and organizations together. We ignore trust issues at the expense of our own performance, and the expense of our team’s and organization’s success.”


Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. Random House.

Caldwell, C., L. Hayes and D. Long. (2010) Leadership, Trustworthiness, and Ethical Stewardship. Journal of Business Ethics 96:497-512

Kay, M. (2015) Leadership Skills #1: Great Leaders are Trustworthy. Last accessed July 2020

Murphy, S. (2016) 10 Benefits of Being a Trustworthy Leader. Last accessed July 2020

Savolainen, T. and Hakkinen, S. (2011) Trusted to Lead: Trustworthiness and its Impact on Leadership. Technology Innovation Management Review, March 2011.

Well, T. (2016) Where are the Trustworthy Leaders? Last accessed July 2020

This article is one in a series on the components of Courageous Leadership. For more information, visit our Courageous Leadership web page.

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