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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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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