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5 Traits of The Trusted Leader

This is our first post in our May blog series exploring different aspects of siloed government. The focus of this post is trust. Briefly we’ll explore how leaders can move towards being a “Trusted Leader” – someone that people want to work with across government, emulate their leadership style and are excited to meet and work with the individual. Gaining people’s trust is no easy task. By identifying the traits and skills of the “Trust Leader,” it is my hope that we can learn what kind of leadership we need in government to cross government agencies, and work towards a more collaborative government.

There are a lot of strategies to take into consideration. I’d love to hear the traits you believe are most important, so please feel free to leave a comment for the GovLoop community. Below are five traits needed to become a trusted leader.

Know When To Row and When to Steer

Sometimes within an organization a leader is the one pulling the boat along, other times the leader is the one steering the boat, just to keep the boat on course. There is for sure a balance a manager needs to make, not to micromanage an employee, but still guiding proper direction. A good manager can do both – and knows which role they need to play and when.

Don’t Throw Someone Under The Bus

Accountability and honesty are hard to come by sometimes. If you are the one at the helm, that means you are also the one who needs to take accountability for results. It comes with the territory. If an employee is not performing well, it’s your responsibility to get them back up to speed or move in a new direction. By showing that you are willing and able to hold yourself personally accountable, trust will improve with your employees and with the various partnerships you may enter across government.

Admit Your Failure – Know What You Can Improve

I always like to reference a Bob Dylan quote, “There is no success like failure, but failure’s no success at all,” that’s the tension for leaders – nobody ever wants to failure on a project, but if you do – you need to be able to pick yourself up and take away some lessons learned. So, the lesson is that to build trust and work across government – you’ll need to have some success stories and people need to see the impact of your leadership. Trust can be built through failure, it’s learning how to navigate through stormy waters and knowing that smooth sailing will lie ahead.

Admitting failure is necessary – a trusted leader needs to show humility and compassion. I also look at leaders who say “I can do better” as a way to empower people. Some look at as a sign of weakness to admit fault, but in my opinion – the ability to say “I can do better” is a sign of a leader who I trust and know is invested in the project.

The key lesson is that leadership never stops. Everyday you can learn something new about yourself, about your coworkers and how to lead your team to success. Leaders who are reflective about their actions and in-tune with their team, they move closer to become the trusted leader. People need to feel a connection.

Allow Employees to Manage Up

Empower and encourage employees to take risks and grow as individuals – these are the kind of people you want within your organization. At all levels of the organization, you need motivated focused employees functioning as change agents.

Manage Conflict

Keep the focus on the mission and the organization. The challenge here is that although you may not want to get sucked into unnecessary conflict – you can’t avoid it. You simply can’t dismiss an employees concern, even if you may consider it petty or a distraction from their job. A trusted leader is one that employees can come to with any issue they are facing – this is critical to allow people to recharge and refocus their work.

Communication is so important to building trust. If you telework and are a manager, you’ll need to really work hard to make sure your presence is felt on the day-to-day, using video chats and periodic in-person visits. Also, you’ll need to communicate with your employees the way you expect them to communicate with the team.

So why is leadership important to silos in government? Again, trust is one of the foundations to collaboration. People want to work with others they trust and respect. By focusing on some of your core leadership traits and actions, you can build yourself as a trusted and accountable leader. The trusted leader is critical to cut across government.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas – what traits do you believe are critical to becoming a trusted leader?


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This post is brought to you by the GovLoop Leadership Council. The mission of this council is to provide you with information and resources to help improve government. Visit the GovLoop Leadership Council to learn more.

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16 Comments

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Profile Photo David Dejewski

Pat – my to favorites are Love and Courage. These are seldom talked about and some people think the ability to love the people we lead is corny. My experience is that loving the people we lead is an immediate shortcut to earning their trust and to doing the right thing when the chips are down and the “right thing” isn’t so clear.

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Profile Photo Corey McCarren

Interesting comment, David. The TV stereotype is that a manager isn’t employee focused. However, I think the workplace is steering away from callous management and realizing that showing employees they matter fosters innovation and hard work.

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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

Thanks for the comments! David I agree about the ability to connect with employees and show empathy/compassion for them. It’s critical for a leader, thanks for your insights!

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Profile Photo Peter Sperry

1. Be willing to make decisions and stand by them. Nothing saps internal moral or external respect faster than a leader who cannot or will not make a decison.

2. Deal with the real world, not what you want, not what your staff wants, not what your external stake holders want but the actual “this is how it is” real world. It may not always be as sugarcoated as you would like but the results of dealing with reality far exceed those of living in a fantasy.

3. Think carefuly, plan meticulously, examine every possible realistic alternative before you act but when you do act, move forward decisively without looking back. Internal and external stakeholders will accept a few course corrections but rarely trust a leader who continually second guesses themselves. If you do not trust your own judgement, why should anyone else?

4. Respect your team enough to hold them to high standards and do not force them to carry team members who cannot or will not meet those standards. Trimming deadwood is not the same as throwing people under the bus.

5. Never ever promise more than you and/or your team can deliver. If you cannot complete a project within the time constraints and budget put forward, explain why and offer a realistic alternative. If you do not control promotions, bonuses, overtime etc within your organization, be honest with your team about it. The realistic accomplishments and rewards you actually deliver, no matter how small, will earn you more trust and respect than any unrealistic ones, no matter how large, you promise but fail to provide. Your team will not remember that you made your best effort. They will remember that you did not deliver.

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Profile Photo Patrick Fiorenza

Thanks Peter – number 5 is critical. Learning how to say no can be quite the challenge sometimes. Great insights, thanks again for sharing.

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Profile Photo Andy Lowenthal

Admitting failure – yes! Too often some of the other things on your list (throwing others under the proverbial bus; conflict) happen because people are too busy pointing fingers than admitting culpability. And most people do this out of fear.

To be sure, not all failure is created equal. It’s true, some failure is inexcusable, but most is not. Most failure, if properly recognized, acknowledged, and/or discussed, could lead to a tremendous yield of professional development and organizational health. Perhaps more regular and timely admission of small failures could even break down organizational silos and in effort to stave off deeper failure? Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

One of your best posts, Pat. Great traits.

It would be cool to turn this into a checklist and have a leader rank themselves 1-5 on each of these…then have their team members do the same – see where there are differences and work on them. I suspect that kind of exercise in and of itself would build trust.

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Profile Photo Chris Cairns

Absolutely agree with all those points. Maybe this isn’t so much a trait as it is a tactic, but I define very specific performance measures and empower my employees to achieve the associated goals / objectives. I don’t get involved in the how to get there, unless called upon for advice, but give them the latitude to achieve how they see fit. Of course, this is all within the scope of the strategy / mission.

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Profile Photo Elizabeth Fischer Laurie

Although this is probably encompassed in several of the points both above and below, a major issue for me is when a leader does set high expectations and then provides no training, guidance, decisions, etc. for his or her employees to be able meet those expectations. It is hard to trust someone who won’t help you achieve anything but still expects you to do so without failing miserably.

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Profile Photo Scott Span

Good list! I also tend to agree with Elizabeth’s points. Simply communicating expectations is not enough. Leaders need to also provide the support and training to assure that employees can meet those expectations, if they don’t do this employees can often feel they are being set up to fail. When employees feel set up to fail, not only does it harm a trusted relationship, it also decreases performance.I believe I’ve said it in previous posts on The Tolero Think Tank , however trust is the foundation of any good relationship both personal and professional – and it must be earned. People view trust in different ways. Though fundamental things such as honesty, transparency, authenticity etc. usually help form trusted relationships,what makes one feel a level of trust may not be the same for another, so leaders need to be cautious to not take a one size fits all approach.

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Profile Photo Mark Sullivan

I would also add ‘Protect the dissident voices.’ As leaders we often are in the least powerful position to create change because we are accountable for balancing the needs and interests of many stakeholders. However, we an can run cover for those provocateurs inside and outside our organizations who have greater freedom to move around, cause ‘trouble’, and mobilize coalitions in support of real change. The trust this generates is often more powerful than any formal authority we may personally possess.

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Profile Photo Jerilyn Handel Polson

Trust is fragile, and sometimes gets “broken” by events out of our control. Still, when trust in a work relationship is broken, a good leader takes responsibility by working to repair that broken relationship. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

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Profile Photo Carol Davison

I believe its most important to MINIMIZE CONFLICT. For example I insist that people resolve conflict openly, honestly and directly with the person with whom they have the conflict before I intervene. That’s how I want to be treated, how trust develops and how people develop conflict mitigaiton skills.

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Profile Photo Mark Sullivan

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@Carol, I’m not sure I would characterize you point as ‘minimize conflict’. As you note, the skill is in resolving conflict openly, honestly, and directly. I would add that conflict is important to both individual and organization growth, and that effectively ‘provoking’ conflict can be essential to waking individuals and organizations out of complacency. the key is in keeping the conflict or disequilibrium within a productive zone.

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