Leading with Trust

Trust is the foundation of modern leadership. Voluntarily and with all our heart we only follow whom we trust. Frances Frei and Anne Morriss describe three drivers for trust: logic, authenticity and empathy.

Lead­er­ship builds on trust. Unless, of course, your name is Caligu­la, you’re a Roman emper­or and you’ve delib­er­ate­ly cho­sen the mot­to “Oderint, dum met­u­ant!” (in Eng­lish: “Let them hate me as long as they fear me”). The result­ing obe­di­ence may be sat­is­fy­ing for some sov­er­eigns, but fear and pres­sure are cer­tain­ly not con­ducive to the cre­ative peak per­for­mance we need more than ever in knowl­edge work in our orga­ni­za­tions at the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tu­ry. Knowl­edge work pre­sup­pos­es vol­un­tari­ness (cf. Peter F. Druck­er, Man­age­men­t’s New Par­a­digm, 1998). How­ev­er, we fol­low vol­un­tar­i­ly and whole­heart­ed­ly only whom we trust.

Trust is also one of the most essen­tial forms of cap­i­tal a leader has. Build­ing trust, how­ev­er, often requires think­ing about lead­er­ship from a new per­spec­tive. The tra­di­tion­al lead­er­ship nar­ra­tive is all about you: your vision and strat­e­gy; your abil­i­ty to make the tough calls and ral­ly the troops; your tal­ents, your charis­ma, your hero­ic moments of courage and instinct. But lead­er­ship real­ly isn’t about you. It’s about empow­er­ing oth­er peo­ple as a result of your pres­ence, and about mak­ing sure that the impact of your lead­er­ship con­tin­ues into your absence. 

Frances Frei and Anne Mor­riss (2020). Every­thing Starts with Trust. Har­vard Busi­ness Review.

We trust anoth­er per­son if, first, the ideas, argu­ments and com­pe­ten­cies of the oth­er per­son con­vince us (log­ic), if, sec­ond, we per­ceive that per­son as sin­cere­ly human (authen­tic­i­ty) and if, third, we feel that the oth­er per­son is pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned about us and the com­mon cause (empa­thy). These are the three dri­vers for trust-based lead­er­ship, log­ic, authen­tic­i­ty and empa­thy, described by Frances Frei and Anne Mor­riss in their new book “Unleashed: The Unapolo­getic Lead­er’s Guide to Empow­er­ing Every­one Around You” (Ama­zon Affil­i­ate-Link) and in their relat­ed arti­cle in the Har­vard Busi­ness Review. Only when all three dri­vers appear to be strong will trust be estab­lished; as soon as one of them shows a deficit, trust will break down.

Three Drivers of Trust according to Frances Frei and Anne Morriss: Authenticity, Logic and Empathy.


Lead­er­ship pro­vides ori­en­ta­tion. In this respect, lead­er­ship at this ratio­nal, log­i­cal lev­el is about visions and ideas and about good argu­ments why it might be worth­while to take the direc­tion indi­cat­ed. Of course, the attrac­tive­ness of the vision and the con­clu­sive­ness of the rea­son­ing play a major role. Those who are not con­vinced of this or who have doubts about the abil­i­ties of the leader will only fol­low distrustfully.

As a gen­er­al rule, a large pro­por­tion of prob­lems in this area are not so much due to the facts and the pros and cons, but rather due to the way they are con­veyed and com­mu­ni­cat­ed. The two authors rec­om­mend sim­ply get­ting straight to the heart of the mat­ter and only then pro­vid­ing the argu­ments for it in the fur­ther course instead of not mak­ing the actu­al point after a long deduc­tion (and the accom­pa­ny­ing dis­cus­sion). Of course, this requires the abil­i­ty to get to the heart of the mat­ter crys­tal clear and to com­mu­ni­cate it unequiv­o­cal­ly, which is an art in itself.


Rela­tion­ships of trust devel­op between peo­ple who sin­cere­ly meet each oth­er in all their human vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. If these peo­ple con­scious­ly or uncon­scious­ly only play roles, the degree of trust nec­es­sar­i­ly remains lim­it­ed. A high degree of authen­tic­i­ty in the orga­ni­za­tion leads to the psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty that peo­ple need in order to be able to devel­op ful­ly. Only when the mem­bers of a group feel safe enough to speak their minds open­ly and take risks will the whole become more than the sum of its parts. That is why psy­cho­log­i­cal safe­ty is by far the most impor­tant fac­tor influ­enc­ing the effec­tive­ness of teams, as Google found out in their Project Aris­to­tle. That’s what makes the dif­fer­ence between ser­vice by the book and real commitment.

So pay less atten­tion to what you think peo­ple want to hear and more atten­tion to what you need to say to them. Reveal your full human­i­ty to the world, regard­less of what your crit­ics say. And while you’re at it, take exquis­ite care of peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from you, con­fi­dent in the knowl­edge that their dif­fer­ence is the very thing that could unleash your poten­tial and your organization’s.

Frances Frei and Anne Mor­riss (2020). Every­thing Starts with Trust. Har­vard Busi­ness Review.


This dimen­sion is the great­est chal­lenge for many man­agers. Greater even than authen­tic­i­ty, which also includes vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty as a human being, some­thing that does not at all match the wide­spread hero­ic (self-)image of lead­er­ship. Espe­cial­ly in the con­text of hier­ar­chi­cal orga­ni­za­tions, lead­er­ship is con­sid­ered syn­ony­mous with posi­tion and pow­er. There­fore, it is all too often about the ego, assertive­ness and one’s own advance­ment. And peo­ple feel this. They sense that the man­ag­er does not care about them as peo­ple with their indi­vid­ual tal­ents, needs and wor­ries, but that in the end they are just pawns, bar­gain­ing chips, head­counts and resources.

Sig­nal­ing a lack of empa­thy is a major bar­ri­er to empow­er­ment lead­er­ship. If peo­ple think you care more about your­self than about oth­ers, they won’t trust you enough to lead them.

Frances Frei and Anne Mor­riss (2020). Every­thing Starts with Trust. Har­vard Busi­ness Review.

Some­times even small changes in behav­ior can sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase empa­thy. The two authors sug­gest, for exam­ple, to observe one­self in meet­ings. As soon as one’s own inter­est is sat­is­fied and one believes to have under­stood it, the com­mit­ment decreas­es and the view moves to the smart­phone or lap­top and to the unan­swered e‑mails. The asso­ci­at­ed sig­nal is clear: I and my tasks are now more impor­tant to me than you, who are here with me in this meet­ing. Real empa­thy in this sit­u­a­tion would mean tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the oth­er peo­ple in the room and their needs. And that begins with sim­ply putting away the smart­phone more often and devot­ing your­self ful­ly to the peo­ple in the room.

Indeed, the last thing we’ll say on empa­thy is this: If you do noth­ing else to change your behav­ior, put away your phone more fre­quent­ly. Put it tru­ly away, out of sight and out of reach, not just flipped over for a few min­utes at a time. You’ll be amazed at the change in the qual­i­ty of your inter­ac­tions and your abil­i­ty to build trust.

Frances Frei and Anne Mor­riss (2020). Every­thing Starts with Trust. Har­vard Busi­ness Review.

Frances Frei her­self sums it all up much bet­ter in her inspir­ing TED Talk with many exam­ples from her prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence at com­pa­nies like Uber:

And in this inter­view Frances Frei goes into even more detail about her find­ings and experiences:

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