word TRUST is displayed

Take 30 seconds to jot down your thoughts on what leaders do:

Now how do they do it.


I had the unique opportunity in the early 2000’s to be part of an all United States Service Academy team to draft and edit a new edition of The Armed Forces Officer. The broad purpose of the book was to get to the essence of what it means to lead as a military officer.  More narrowly how the different cultures of each service apply those broad strokes.

Guess what? Those broad strokes apply to leadership in any forum and the focus on different cultures applies directly to the corporate, educational, and the nonprofit world very well.

What do leaders do?

Leadership is a bond of trust. If trust does not exist between the leader and the led, leadership is not happening. Here are several possibilities of what is actually going on.

  • The leader is being obeyed. They are a leader of position, not of voice. A leader of voice is an individual followed because they are a voice of leadership. Respected for their expertise and approach.
  • The leader is in front of the organization but not building or leading from a place of trust. They are akin to a person jumping in front of a parade thinking they are leading it. The route was set well before they jumped in front.
  • The leader is followed out of shear curiosity. “What will she do next? This should be entertaining!”

Leaders build trust!

As you know trust does not develop overnight. It takes time and consistency. How do they do it? By executing four very clear steps.

  • Leaders set the example
  • Leaders set and enforce the standard
  • Leaders build and sustain morale
  • Leaders exhibit moral and physical courage

A few thoughts on each element.

Set the example

Leaders who are exemplars of the expectations of subordinates build credibility. Being an exemplar does not entail doing the job of subordinates. It entails demonstrating the expectations such as; being on time for meetings, professionalism, attention to detail, treating everyone with respect, admitting mistakes, being transparent, and living by the vision, mission, and values of the organization. Credible leaders set an airtight example for others to follow.

Set and enforce the standards

Setting the standard is easy, the enforcement proves difficult for many or at least uncomfortable. Why is this so difficult? The feedback from inexperienced leaders is the accountability discussion feels like you are being mean or I don’t want to be confrontational. There is nothing mean or confrontational about it. You communicated your expectations, set performance metrics, and standards of professional behavior. You are doing your job, they are not.

The reaction from experienced leaders is that not holding individuals to the standards, only lowers the standards. Worse yet is being inconsistent with accountability. Holding one group/individual to a standard and not another erodes your credibility. Your audio must match the video, if you state you will ensure individuals meet the standard then do it and be consistent.  Otherwise you will be sowing seeds for low performance, low respect, discontent, and a cynical culture.

Set and enforce the standard and you will likely have the performance and respect you expect. Of course, how you enforce the standard has an impact. Accountability can be calm and professional.

Build and Sustain Morale

If you are the leader you own everything under your umbrella; cost, schedule, and performance. Part of performance is morale. Think of the best boss you ever worked for. What did that leader do for you and those around you? Working in an engaging environment that gets the best out of everyone is infectious and attracts talent. This does not have to be ping pong tables and happy hours. What are you doing to first, understand the current state of morale in your organization is and second, to positively build it and sustain it?

Exhibit Moral and Physical Courage

The physical courage clearly comes from the military aspects of my source however, in some lines of work it fits. Law enforcement and first responders come to mind immediately. If you lead individuals who you send into harm’s way, you better be able to do what you ask of them. You know it if it applies.

Moral courage fits every leader. But what is it? Let’s call it the ability to stand up to moral wrongs and make the hard decisions. It often feels like sticking up for the little guy, an injustice, or speaking truth to power. Some examples: calling out unethical behavior particularly the behavior of seniors, going to bat for an individual who is being treated poorly, putting a career/promotion at risk by speaking the truth, or backing an unpopular position because you believe it is right.

Put in your mind’s eye two pictures. The first, the finest example of consist morale courage in the workplace you have witnessed. How do you feel about that individual?

The second picture, the most egregious example of a moral coward. The individual who always acquiesced to the bosses’ position, rarely took a stand on issues important to the organization, and would allow other individuals to task your organization without any intervention or involvement.

Put those pictures next to each other and assess how you feel about them. Nothing more needs to be said.

Leadership is a bond of trust – without trust there is no leadership

How do you build that trust?

  • You set the example
  • You set and enforce the standard
  • You build and sustain morale
  • You exhibit physical and morale courage

On a scale of one to ten assess how you are doing in each area. Set an improvement goal and take an action to make progress. You will be rewarded with the trust and confidence of those you work with.

Did you enjoy working through this leadership tool?  Check out another leadership blog post here.