The Seminal Skill in Adaptive Leadership: The Work of Building Trust

May 4, 2016 By Katherine Tyler Scott

One of the first things we learn in life is whether and how to trust someone else. Our experience with our caregivers tell us whether we can be safe and secure in a dependent relationship, whether the environment is loving or hostile, open or closed to our discomfort, affirming or rejecting of who we are, and whether our basic survival needs will be met without fear. What we learn in these first relationships of trust-holding remain with us for all of our lives. They are the building blocks, the foundation for who we become. If we have not examined the origins of trust in our own lives we will be unaware of the influence they have on our behavior and the health of our relationships. We will be unconscious as to the effect these early formational experiences have on our leadership of others. We will be limited in our understanding of the impact that trust in our lives will have on the individuals and groups we invite into the vulnerable and risky work of adaptive leadership. 

The lack of trust is a major barrier to change and transformation whether in an individual, a system, or an organization. Low or no trust breeds anger and fear; it develops strong defenses that are impervious or resistant to what is different, challenging or factual. It feeds an addiction to the status quo. Unexamined experiences of trust lead to being captive to underlying emotions for which there is no easy or rational explanation. A lack of awareness or insight thwarts substantial progress on “wicked” and adaptive problems because the psychic energy repression creates within an individual, group or system is about maintenance - keeping things as they are or returning to the way things were. Retaining an illusion of being safe through this balance and state of control is systematic of low or no trust. 

So what are some behaviors of a low trust leader? A few notable ones are the exercise of tight control over others; tracking employees every move and control over their use of time; micromanaging assignments; difficulty delegating tasks; not sharing information that might help another person; avoidance of diversity; and denial of or aversion to conflict. 

An internal lack of trust is very restrictive and isolating for a leader and reinforces a behavioral cycle in which minimal learning can occur, and in which truth gradually becomes distorted and views entrenched. The danger in this is that those entrapped on this treadmill of knowing only what you know are unable to see their distortion of reality - they believe they are trustworthy truth tellers.  Unless others challenge their limited way of seeing and being, they will contribute to the leader’s shadow-that unexamined part of the self of the leader. 

Leaders have considerable influence and power and those with low trust are more likely to do others great harm. The main reason for this danger is a blindness to unexamined forces that have shaped and formed their own capacity to trust. The most important antidote for an unconscious leader is inner work- the kind of intensive, expertly guided work that helps leaders examine themselves in-depth, identifies the origins of trust, recognizes their core values, guiding beliefs and partisan perceptions, reviews their developmental and behavioral history, and that ultimately helps them to understand the meaning of their lives. 

This is the kind of leader followers should choose to trust. 

For more information about the Ki ThoughtBridge Inner Work of the Leader Workshops contact Katherine at