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The Driving Force Behind Lasting Leadership (It’s Not What You Think)

THE BIG IDEA: Integrity is the foundation for trust. Trust is the most important characteristic people look for in leaders. It’s also the driving force behind customer loyalty.

Over 75,000 people were asked: What qualities in a leader would inspire you to follow willingly? One quality topped the list: honesty. Integrity is another word for honesty. We tend to trust people who we believe have integrity. We distrust those who we perceive lack integrity. But integrity is just a word. Enron had integrity listed as one of their five core values. The word itself doesn’t hold much power. The power comes when a person’s or company’s behavior supports what the word represents. Businesses that are run by men and women with integrity have a long-term, competitive advantage over those who don’t. In the short term, a business without integrity might grow faster. But as the demand for transparency grows in the marketplace, these businesses struggle to stay afloat. Abraham Maslow noted that “any enterprise which wishes to endure over a long period of time and to remain in a healthy and growing state would certainly want a non-manipulative, trusting relationship with its customers rather than the relationship of the quick fleecing, never to see them again.”

How to Relate to Others

If we reduce customer loyalty to a strategy, we miss the point. Businesses don’t create authentic customer loyalty through “loyalty programs” or “rewards cards.” These are good marketing strategies. But loyalty itself is a function of leadership. To understand the drivers of loyalty, we need to start by appreciating how we form social bonds in our personal lives and around the office. To adopt a customer-oriented psychology, first consider how you relate to other people:

  • How do you form meaningful relationships?

  • What leads you to feeling loyal to one human being over another?

  • Do you form loyal bonds with someone you don’t trust?

Trust is clearly the foundation for social bonds, for we don’t like associating with people we don’t feel we can trust. But why is it often so challenging to build trust?

Social Masks in the Workplace

Starting in early childhood, we begin putting on social masks—what Carl Jung called personas—that we use to interface with the world. We tend to hide behind these masks in adulthood because we don’t want others to see who we really are. There are two primary reasons for this:

First, we believe we are supposed to appear a certain way within specific roles. We adopt role models from films, television, and people we encounter. Unconsciously, we model their behavior even if that behavior doesn’t serve us. Many executives believe they have to look powerful and certain at all times to gain the trust and respect of their team. (Perhaps like Gordon Gekko from the film Wall Street.) But who actually feels certain all the time? Could you really trust someone that believes they have all of the answers to everything? Second, we are afraid of not being accepted by others. The need for approval is a driving force behind much of our behavior because it’s a basic human need. The challenge with our social masks is that they are dishonest. If we are consciously wearing them, we are deceiving others. If we are unconsciously wearing them, we are deceiving ourselves. Even though others may not consciously know they are being deceived, their subconscious mind knows all. Deception makes people feel uneasy, which leads them to put up their guard. When a person’s guard is up, their ability to be open and to trust is uprooted.

How to Build Trust

The secret to building trust is fostering humility. Humility is an inner acknowledgement that you are an human being with vulnerabilities, imperfections, and the propensity for failure—just like everyone else. Jim Collins’ research of outperforming leaders highlights that humility is one of the primary attributes that differentiates top leaders from everyone else. That means that top leaders have the courage to take off their social masks enough to allow people to see their vulnerability. When an employee can see their leader as vulnerable, the leader becomes more accessible to them. They can then relate to their leader through their own humanity, which helps establish greater openness and trust. There’s an inherent power in vulnerability and it takes courage to actualize it.

How to Develop Humility

Here are a few reminders for walking the path to greater humility:

  • It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to fail. If you openly expose your follies, it will give your people permission to fail too. This will inspire innovation.

  • Lighten up and laugh at yourself. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Work (and life) is infinitely more enjoyable when we have a sense of humor, including the self-deprecating kind.

  • You don’t need to feel like you have all answers. We’re all mostly making it up as we go along. Operate from the Zen principle of Beginner’s Mind. Approach projects and problems with openness and curiosity as well as an eagerness to learn.

  • Pride blocks humility. Pride and arrogance are the reasons why so many leaders don’t succeed in the long-run.

  • Comparing yourself to others hinders humility and reduces your level of happiness. Inspired leaders have a vision for themselves that’s based on an internal standard.

  • Putting up a “strong front” is a defensive posture that signals insecurity to others. Demonstrating humility and vulnerability requires courage—a sign of inner strength.

Remember that your employees are modeling their behaviors after their leader. The investment you place in your own personal development can have a positive ripple effect throughout your organization.

How to Cultivate a Trusting Organization

To evaluate the overall level of trust within your enterprise, consider:

  1. How strongly do you trust your management team?

  2. Perhaps more importantly, does your management team trust you?

  3. How do you and your leadership team view your customers (for example, as dollar signs, as pawns, or as human beings like you)?

  4. Do your customers have a reason to trust you or NOT to trust your brand?

Be honest. Start from where you are. Know that building trust always starts with integrity—with the cultivating of inner honesty. Integrity is easy to write and read about; it is far more challenging to live it. But that’s the call to adventure for all leaders destined to make major contributions to the world. The cultivation of integrity and trust isn’t a weekend affair, but a daily, continuous practice.

How Integrity Translates to the Bottom Line

Would you expect your customers to form an emotional bond with an organization they don’t trust or believe has integrity? Honest businesses are more likely to attract honest customers who will form loyal bonds to their brand. These loyal patrons become your best customers—your Brand Lovers—who buy from you more often and market your business for you.

It’s that simple. And it’s that challenging.



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