Your Success as a Leader Depends on This One Thing

One ThingLeadership is a complex endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be complicated.

We tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and that’s definitely true in the field of leadership. To prove my point, go to and search their book listings for the word “leadership” and see how many returns you get (but wait until you finish reading this article!). What did you find? It was 138,611 as of the writing of this post.

Browsing the titles of some popular best-sellers would lead you to believe that in order to be a successful leader you just need to find the magical keys, take the right steps, follow the proper laws, figure out the dysfunctions, embrace the challenge, ascend the levels, look within yourself, look outside yourself, form a tribe, develop the right habits, know the rules, break the rules, be obsessed, learn the new science, or discover the ancient wisdom. Did I say we like to over-complicate things?

What if successful leadership isn’t really that complicated? What if I told you there was one thing…not a title, power, or position…that determined whether people followed your lead? What if you understood there was one aspect of your leadership that was a non-negotiable, must-have characteristic that must be in place for people to pledge you their loyalty and commitment? What if you knew there was one element that defined how people experienced you as a leader? Would you be interested? Can it really be as simple as one thing?

That one thing is trust. It’s the foundation of any successful, healthy, thriving relationship. Without it, your leadership is doomed. Creativity is stifled, innovation grinds to a halt, and reasoned risk-taking is abandoned. People check their hearts and minds at the door, leaving you with a staff who has quit mentally and emotionally but stayed on the payroll, sucking precious resources from your organization.

However, with trust, all things are possible. Energy, progress, productivity, and ingenuity flourish. Commitment, engagement, loyalty, and excellence become more than empty words in a company mission statement; they become reality. Trust has been called the “magic” ingredient of organizational life. It simultaneously acts as the bonding agent that keeps everything together as well as the lubricant that keeps things moving smoothly. Stephen M.R. Covey likes to say that while high trust won’t necessarily rescue a poor strategy, low trust will almost always derail a good one. Trust is essential to your success as a leader.

But trust doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t happen by accident. It’s advanced leadership and requires you to work at it each and every day. It starts by you being trustworthy. The ABCD Trust Model is a helpful tool to help you understand the four elements of being a trustworthy leader.

Leaders build trust when they are:

Able—Being Able is about demonstrating competence. One way leaders demonstrate their competence is having the expertise needed to do their jobs. Expertise comes from possessing the right skills, education, or credentials that establish credibility with others. Leaders also demonstrate their competence through achieving results. Consistently achieving goals and having a track record of success builds trust with others and inspires confidence in your ability. Able leaders are also skilled at facilitating work getting done in the organization. They develop credible project plans, systems, and processes that help team members accomplish their goals.

Believable—A Believable leader acts with integrity. Dealing with people in an honest fashion by keeping promises, not lying or stretching the truth, and not gossiping are ways to demonstrate integrity. Believable leaders also have a clear set of values that have been articulated to their direct reports and they behave consistently with those values—they walk the talk. Finally, treating people fairly and equitably are key components to being a believable leader. Being fair doesn’t necessarily mean treating people the same in all circumstances, but it does mean that people are treated appropriately and justly based on their own unique situation.

ConnectedConnected leaders show care and concern for people, which builds trust and helps to create an engaging work environment. Leaders create a sense of connection by openly sharing information about themselves and the organization and trusting employees to use that information responsibly. Leaders also build trust by having a “people first” mentality and building rapport with those they lead. Taking an interest in people as individuals and not just as nameless workers shows that leaders value and respect their team members. Recognition is a vital component of being a connected leader, and praising and rewarding the contributions of people and their work builds trust and goodwill.

Dependable—Being Dependable and maintaining reliability is the fourth element of trustworthiness. One of the quickest ways to erode trust is by not following through on commitments. Conversely, leaders who do what they say they’re going to do earn a reputation as being consistent and trustworthy. Maintaining reliability requires leaders to be organized in such a way that they are able to follow through on commitments, be on time for appointments and meetings, and get back to people in a timely fashion. Dependable leaders also hold themselves and others accountable for following through on commitments and taking responsibility for the outcomes of their work.

Trust – the one requirement for successful leadership. Do you have it?

Randy Conley is the V.P. of Client Services and Trust Practice Leader at The Ken Blanchard Companies and his LeaderChat posts normally appear the fourth or last Thursday of every month. For more insights on trust and leadership, visit Randy at his Leading with Trust blog or follow him on Twitter @RandyConley.

23 thoughts on “Your Success as a Leader Depends on This One Thing

  1. Kouz and Posner in Leadership Challenge would say that love is the one thing. Love… and trust is won. Pour love out and it is reciprocated. But the word love used in today’s world and in today’s business world isn’t trusted…so trust, perhaps, is the next best word. Either way, it must be real. It must be without manipulation and with the purest of motives, and built through empathy. Because trust broken is near impossible to rebuild.

    • Broken trust only takes a moment to shatter relationships and outcomes for situations. Depending on how long that relationship is in tact, it could take years to fully recover the trust. Today people run from love and seem to fear it but I think it can be a huge motivator in performance and outcome. We should always be passionate about what we are contributing and care enough about how our production will affect employees and clients.

    • Hi Rita,

      I don’t disagree with the idea of love being a necessary ingredient. As you mention, getting your mind wrapped around what “love” means in the business world can be a challenge for some. The similarity I see with love and trust is they both come from the place of the leader having the best intentions for the follower. The leader who displays sincerity, empathy, and true authenticity will earn both the love and trust of his/her followers.

      Thanks for adding your insights,


      • Roger Mayer and his colleagues at Notre Dame used the phrase benevolence to align with love as relating to trust. As part of their three “legs” to trust, benevolence was briefly defined as the idea that the leader has the best interest of his or her followers in mind.

        • Excellent point Kevin. Benevolence, along with competence and integrity, are recognized as the three core components (or legs as you referenced) of trust.

  2. With great respect to the sponsoring organization sponsoring this column … Trust and love are two great one word summaries for leadership.
    My response is “It Depends” tm. You may need to follow someone you distrust 40% of the time or who loves you just 20% if the time, because that person is the best at that time or they may “outrank” you.

    • Hi Daniel,

      Many times you do have to follow someone you don’t love or trust because they have been placed in a position of authority over you. The encouragement here is specifically to leaders – if they want to achieve long-term success, then trust has to be the foundation of their relationship with their followers.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.


  3. I have had several leaders and the few that stand out the most I knew I could trust. I never felt I had to play the corporate game in order to get what was needed for success. I was able to rely on skill and knowledge which in my opinion in much more important than politics. I have also had managers that I avoided asking questions to and had team members come directly to me rather than the manager. It was difficult to get honest answers and responses that broke away from the manager’s best interest. Politics came in handy with that manager because it was not the correct time to pull the curtain and expose the behaviors. All I know is I desperately wanted to seek the advice and guidance of previous quality leaders.

    • Hi Nick,

      It’s no accident that the leaders who made the biggest impact on you were ones you trusted. Your experience illustrates the reality of successful leadership – it begins with trust.

      Hope all is well at GCU,


  4. Randy, I love this material. Thanks. One think I have learned in relation to Daniel’s comment above… and I learned it in the Sonora Desert, is that rattlesnakes are common and they serve a purpose. They slither and slide into my field of view from time to time. Sometimes I have to coexist with them for a season. Learn to recognize when you are near one, proceed with caution, and never forget, no matter how calm and quiet he gets, he is still a rattlesnake and will bite, sometimes even without provocation. So long as I don’t forget he is a rattlesnake, I am in good shape.


    • Kevin, it’s great to hear from you! I hope all is well with you.

      I love your analogy. To me it illustrates the importance of wisdom and discernment when it comes to trusting someone.

      Thanks for adding your insights.


  5. Reblogged this on principalaim and commented:
    Understanding what it means to be an effective leader is important. However, I believe what is even more essential is the knowledge that real leadership often comes from qualities that have little to do with title or position. tlb

  6. Hello Randy and thanks for sharing your thoughts which really resonated with me. I fully concur with your opinion that we have turned leadership into a “secret code” that only a few have access to. Through my becoming a coach and studying more about leadership in the last few years, I am very glad to discover that the key of a successful leadership is a healthy and thriving relationship. And like in any healthy and thriving relationship, trust and transparency are key. Therefore the importance for leaders to be A, B, C and D, as well as to communicate their Leadership Point of View to help direct reports to become familiar with the “secret code” of how they lead. The benefit of sharing that “secret code”? Create an environment of trust and transparency to allow the greatness in each employee to happen!

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  9. Beautiful perspective….. TRUST, the only thing, gave a new vision to enhance my leadership skills

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