The Key Trait Successful Leaders Have, and How To Get It


Which quality do you need to possess if you want to lead effectively? You are probably thinking it’s something like confidence.  Or maybe vision.  Or emotional intelligence – you hear about that one all the time.  Those are all good qualities for a leader to have, I’ll grant you, but the answer is actually trustworthiness.  Technically, it’s not just being trustworthy, but being seen as trustworthy, that’s key. 

Competent people are valuable allies or potent enemies.

Why is trustworthiness so essential? It turns out that "Can I trust you?" is always on our minds whenever we interact with other people - particularly when we meet them for the first time -  though we usually aren’t consciously aware of thinking it.  Studies suggest that in order to figure out whether or not someone is trustworthy, we analyze their words and deeds to find answers to two questions:  "Do you have good intentions toward me – are you a friend or a foe?" and "Do you have what it takes to act on those intentions?” (Because if the answer to the latter is “no”, then you are more or less harmless no matter what your intentions are.) Again, we don’t necessarily realize we are asking (and answering) these questions because much of this is happening very quickly at a non-conscious level. 

So how do we find the answers? Decades of research show that we are all highly tuned-in to two particular aspects of other people’s character, right from the get go – their warmth and their competence.  Your warmth – being friendly, kind, loyal, empathetic – is taken as evidence that you have good intentions toward others.  If you are warm, you are probably a friend.  If you are cold, you are a potential foe.  Your competence – being intelligent, creative, skilled, effective – is taken as a evidence that you can act on your intentions if you want to.   Competent people are therefore valuable allies or potent enemies.  Less competent people are objects of compassion, or scorn.  

It should come as no real surprise that being trusted is essential to good leadership.  When your team trusts you as a leader, it increases their commitment to team goals.  Communication improves – ideas flow more freely, increasing creativity and productivity.  Perhaps most important, in the hands of a trusted leader, employees are more comfortable with change, and more willing to embrace a new vision.  When your team doesn’t trust you, you don’t get their best effort, or all the information you need from them to make good decisions.  And you find yourself unable to inspire, unable to influence, and unable to create real change.

So we can all agree that trust is good.  The problem, however, is that most of us see leadership as being first and foremost about competence – as about strength and confidence and accomplishments.  We are so eager to prove that we “know what we’re doing” as leaders that we neglect the arguably more important part of the trust formula: proving that we will act with others’ interests in mind.  In other words, trust is an afterthought.  

Be someone people can always count on to do the right thing.

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy, author of many of the key studies on trust and leadership, has argued that when you project competence before warmth, you run the risk of appearing cold…and eliciting fear from your employees.  They might respect you, but fearful employees are rarely able to work at their best.  And you certainly can’t blame them for wanting to jump ship once an offer to work for someone who doesn’t make them constantly anxious comes along. 

So, are you a leader that projects warmth - a leader your team feels they can trust?  If you suspect the answer might be no, you need to start working on your warmth pronto.  In a nutshell, what you want to do is convey the sense that you have your employees welfare and interests in mind – that what they experience matters to you. Think about how you can use the following strategies to up your trust quotient:

  1. Pay attention  
    Make eye contact, and hold it – both when you are speaking and listening.  Nod from time to time to show you are understanding what’s being said to you.  Smile, especially when they do.  And above all else, really focus on what is being said to you – everyone needs to feel that they have been heard, even when you can’t give them what they are asking for.
  2. Show empathy 
    Take the time to mentally put yourself in your employees’ shoes, to really try to grasp their perspective.  Use phrases like “I imagine you must have felt….” to convey that empathy directly.  
  3. Trust them first  
    Human beings have a deeply-rooted tendency toward reciprocity.  We are naturally inclined to want to do favors, give gifts, and work to promote those who have done these things for us in the past.   And the same holds when it comes to trust -  we are more likely to feel we can trust someone who has trusted us first.  Share personal (but appropriate!) stories, talk about your struggles and challenges, let them know your fallible, human side.  Allowing yourself to be a bit vulnerable is a great way to project warmth.

All that said, if you just aren’t the warm-and-fuzzy type, and maybe talking about “feelings” makes you uncomfortable, fear not.  Evidence suggests that the moral character aspects of warmth – the sense that you are fair, principled, courageous, and honest – are also highly effective for establishing trust.   In other words, to get your employees to trust you, be someone they can always count on to do the right thing.  After all, this is ultimately what trust is actually about.


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