Trust in Leadership: Is it Earned or Given?

Leadership Trust in the ArmyAt one of our recent CEO Connection Boot Camps a bit of a debate ignited over the topic of trust in leadership: is it given or is it earned?

Some of the executives felt, “clearly, trust is earned.”  One CEO in particular felt very strongly that it is given by choice.  He went on to explain his perspective, “The way I behave is perceived differently by all of my employees.  Some choose to trust me and some don’t, but they all observed the same behavior.”


Now, you might say to that CEO, “well, those who chose to give you their trust must have felt you had earned it,” implying earning comes first.

But what about the person that “bends over backwards” doing trustworthy deeds who for some reason my gut just tells me I cannot trust?

Does this just leave us with chickens and eggs?

Earned vs. Given: An Example in Action

Imagine a new CEO comes on board and she holds a company-wide meeting from the corporate auditorium.  Her speech is broadcast to manufacturing plants and offices around the world so everyone hears from her at once.

She is going to want the employees to trust her.  She will likely be sharing a new vision and laying out what she sees as the most important strategies to pursue.  Trust will be an essential ingredient in getting the employees to pursue the vision and implement the strategies with her.

  • Assuming none of the employees has met her previously, all are observing exactly the same behavior at exactly the same time
  • Yet, we can probably all agree that some of the employees will walk away trusting her while others will not

So what drives the individual decision to trust?  Does this prove it’s a choice to give trust since the behavior displayed was the same for all to witness and no one individual was treated differently?

Why It Matters

Here’s why I think it’s important to ponder on this:

As leaders we are put in situations each and every day where we want and need people to trust us.  We need to understand its drivers in order to be successful.  I believe that the underlying driver is the same regardless of whether you must earn trust or whether it is given freely to you:

Knowing and being our true selves, leaders of character, and sharing our true selves openly with others.

Because if trust is earned you must demonstrate:

  • Integrity
  • Loyalty
  • Wisdom
  • Honesty
  • Respect

And if it is freely given you must demonstrate:

  • Vision
  • Relatability
  • Strength
  • Commitment
  • Passion

And if we are simply our true selves, assuming we come into our leadership roles with strong character and passionate about our vision and our purpose, we will display all of these essential ingredients.  We will be trusted, regardless of whether people are freely choosing to trust us or if we are earning their trust along the way.

What do you think? Please share your insights in the comments!


Leading with Character by Leading from Within

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Photo is of soldiers in the 3rd Platoon, Company B, Combat Team northwest of Baghdad on July 4, 2008 by the U.S. Army.


  1. Lisa: I feel it is important to remember everyone is different and as you mention, put in the same situation or circumstance people will react differently. Being aware of this is trying to implement a complete strategy vs an “either/or” strategy can go along way to achieving our objectives.

  2. Alan Hill says:

    Leaders who want others to trust them need to care more about their people than their own souls.
    Here is a story that comes close to explaining.

    • Alan, I think you raise an excellent point about how critical it is to care about, and I’d add empathize with, your employees. We absolutely cannot lead if that is not part of who we are – thank you for that! And thank you for sharing your story here – it’s poignant and beautiful.

  3. Rob Fisher says:

    Great post, I wanted to say thanks for all the great insight. Love your blog and I am always sharing your posts with my peers, great job, I’ve also become a fan of #leadershipchat.


    • Rob, honored to know that you share my posts so freely and thrilled to know you’re part of the LeadershipChat community! I’ll see you on Tuesday, and thank you for being here!

  4. Steve Stutzman says:

    Is trust earned or given? Yes. I think there is a need to carry ourselves with the understanding that, as you have pointed out, individuals will respond differently, many times based on their own backgrounds and experience with other leaders. People who have had leaders who did not have integrity will naturally be more skeptical and need to have their trust earned. People who have had leaders in the past that they could trust will naturally trust easier, and there will be a range of responses everywhere between these two. You made an excellent point about displaying all the essential ingredients needed for effective leadership, regardless of individual responses. Part of effective leadership is knowing how to lead and motivate even the ones who do not fully trust you in a way that cultivates trust throughout the organization.

    • Steve,

      I love your point about integrity because it is such an integral part of being a genuine leader. Great insight that someone hurt by leader without it may be more reluctant to trust in the future – even though it’s someone completely new. And yes, that’s one of the real challenges of leadership – bringing along those who are just not sure in a way that is respectful of all other employees and the organization’s culture. Brilliant points, Steve- thank you so much for sharing them!

  5. Lisa,

    One key factor is that everyone is drawing upon their on experiences from all the previous leaders they have worked with before.

    Then in brain technology we have learned that if a new leader has anything that reminds the individuals of someone who has acting out of integrity before, the brain will zero in on that because it is always looking for patterns to evaluate.

    I am amazed how many leaders do not learn how powerful and revealing their body language is when they communicate. I would always invest in a professional there who can help me be able to keep my desired message aligned with my body language. If I need to change something inside me so that my body language is congruent with my message, then it is worth the investment to improve me. After all I am what leads the way-clarity, clairty, clarity.

    • Michele,

      Fascinating point about how our brain is looking for patterns to evaluate, and so we may judge based on how someone like this leader behaved in the past… And I absolutely agree with you about body language. When you’re a leader, everything communicates. And you’re right, if your body language doesn’t align with your message then your desire to send a clear message won’t be successful… Such great points – thank you so much for sharing them here!

  6. John Feskorn says:

    Hi, Lisa ~ Gosh, what a curious question about trust in leadership; earned or given? I believe leaders should be given trust but it is up to them to maintain that trust through their actions…this to me is the earning part. I love the post and especially appreciate your bullet points explaining both. Thanks, John

    • Thank you, John – I appreciate that. I also love your perspective – “I’ll give it to you but you then have to earn the right to keep it…” I think many of us do that, especially with new leaders. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights – it is most sincerely appreciated!

  7. Kathy Manweiler says:

    Lisa, I think your lists of traits that must be demonstrated if trust is earned or given show some really good insights. I agree with several of the comments above that past experiences/baggage with other leaders affects how people trust new leaders. There are times when I feel trust almost immediately for some leaders. With some other people, I’ve made the decision to trust and respect their position even if I don’t feel immediate trust for the person in that position. That distinction has served me well. Many times, once I get to know someone better, they earn my trust. But there have been a few times when I’ve been very glad that I drew the line at professional respect vs. personal trust. Unfortunately, some leaders take advantage of trust instead of valuing it, and until you work with someone for a while, it can be hard to tell how much trust to give them. Thanks for another great post! @kamkansas

    • Thanks so much, Kathy. Interesting experiences regarding the difference in the degree of trust you felt with different people, and the line that you sometimes draw. Very insightful regarding human behavior overall as I’m sure we all give and receive trust to different degrees, which certainly impacts the premise here. Thank you for sharing your insights and for being here – I sincerely appreciate it!

  8. Lisa, well written post about a complex subject. People never freely trust. They will trust in advance, for a while, and some quite a while. Eventually though leaders will have to pay for the trust their contributors demonstrated. It’s almost like a bank account. People who serve others make deposits and when those same people need others to give them the benefit of the doubt, they can make a withdrawal. Got me thinking about a post…

    Thanks. Mike…

    • Mike,

      I *love* that this has you thinking about a post – I can’t wait to see it! Love your analogy too. We think about that bank account when it comes to praise and networking but it’s interesting to think about it from the trust perspective. Thank you so much for sharing that insight with me – I sincerely appreciate it. All the best!

    • Steve Stutzman says:

      You’ve got a lot packed into a couple sentences here, Mike. Very helpful. Can’t wait to read more of your thoughts on this.

  9. Hi Lisa. Thank you for sharing this insightful post. I believe that the answer is “both/and” rather than “either/or”. I believe trust is earned and given through the development of a relationship.

    I’m an advocate of the TrustWorks ABCD Model for providing a framework for how trust is developed in relationships. The ABCD’s of trust are:

    A – Able is about demonstrating competence. Do the leaders know how to get the job done? Are they able to produce results? Do they have the skills to make things happen—including knowing the organization and equipping people with the resources and information they need to get their job done?

    B – Believable means acting with integrity. Leaders have to be honest in their dealings with people. In practical terms, this means creating and following fair processes. People need to feel that they are being treated equitably. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone has to be treated the same way in all circumstances, but it does mean that people are being treated appropriately and justly based on their own unique circumstances. Believability is also about acting in a consistent, values-driven manner that reassures employees that they can rely on their leaders.

    C – Connected is about demonstrating care and concern for other people. It means focusing on people and identifying their needs. It is supported by good communication skills. Leaders need to openly share information about the organization and about themselves. This allows the leader to be seen as more of a real person that a follower can identify with. When people share a little bit of information about themselves, it creates a sense of connection.

    D – Dependable is about reliably following through on what the leaders say that they are going to do. It means being accountable for their actions and being responsive to the needs of others so if leaders promise something they must follow through. It also requires being organized and predictable so that people can see that the leaders have things in order and are able to follow through on their promises.

    Best regards,

    Randy Conley
    Trust Practice Leader
    The Ken Blanchard Companies

    Twitter – @TrustWrks
    Blog –
    Website –

    • Hi Randy,

      I agree with you – it can be both, as many leaders will attest to. I sincerely appreciate you sharing your ABCD model – I think we’re fully aligned in our thinking about what is most critical, which is encouraging to see!

      Thank you so much for not only being here but for taking the time to share your insights with the community here – it means so much to me. All the very best and I hope you’ll join us on Tuesday evenings for #LeadershipChat!

  10. Lisa, I believe it is both and determined by the person/people being led.

    This reminds me of “The Integrity Chain” by Dr. Ralph James where he posits “integrity leads to trust which leads to repeat business which leads to greater profitability.”

    This concept applies as much to employees as to customers and integrity is the foundation for all.

    Thanks for the topic.

    • Tom, I like that, thank you for sharing. It’s interesting because I recently had a long conversation with a CEO about how critical integrity is – as the main ingredient, actually, to genuine leadership.

      Thanks so much for being here and for sharing these insights – I sincerely appreciate it!

  11. Mark Fisher says:

    I once worked for an individual years ago and this issue of trust came up, he said to me in a general type of a statement” its not that you lied to me but now I can never trust you again”what I took from this was that trust is given and its the person who is being given that trust to keep (though all of the things mentioned in your acticle) or to lose. If you go though life not trusting anything or anyone then you might as well just stay in bed as you have become paranoid. You trust that the plane you just got on is going to get you there safely don’t you?

    • Mark,

      Such a great point! We must trust to some degree or we would walk around paranoid and not able to focus on or fulfill our own vision. What an interesting experience you had with that individual – I sincerely appreciate you sharing it here. Please join us at #LeadershipChat in the near future – would love to get your insights regularly. :)

  12. Hi Lisa

    I loved your list of traits for earned and given. My own sense these days is that the critical thing is whether a leader is actively reaching out to others — meaning intentionally focused on crossing trust divides (where there is mistrust or simply ambiguity) — in order to actively attend to relationships and build them up. Of course there are no guarantees that reaching out will be reciprocated, but this makes the issue of trust an action item, and maybe that represents a bit of a third counter-point to the earned/given dilemma.

    • Dan, interesting… I like that idea of a third dimension with the leader reaching out. I certainly think that’s part of how you earn trust, but it’s fascinating to ponder it as it’s own leg of the stool, so to speak. :) Thanks so much for that insight!

  13. I think this is a very interesting article for href=””>Leadership Development …I would perceive exceptional leaders to build trust with their staff…..but I guess there are many leadership situations where a good leader might argue that an employee doesn’t necessarily have to trust them as long as they do a good job…but is this the kind of culture you would want in an organisation?

  14. hi, can u send me question air about this article?

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