Trust: The Most Essential Leadership Quality

I recently attended one of the best leadership seminars I’ve ever attended: the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. Over two days, 65,000+ people gathered around the world to hear internationally acclaimed leaders across business, academics, government and NGOs share leadership insights and stories. It was a fantastic and unique blend of inspirational, strategic, and practical wisdom.

One of the most powerful take-aways for me was the different speakers’ opinions of the most essential qualities of an effective leader…

  • Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, spoke about irrepressible optimism and how essential this is for giving a leader and those around her hope.
  • Jim Collins, author of best-selling books Built to Last and Good to Great shared compelling research findings that show how great leaders are distinguished by their fanatic discipline, empirical creativity and productive paranoia. (See his latest book, Great by Choice.)
  • Carly Fiorina, former HP CEO, shared personal remarks about how prayer, faith and friendship have helped her lead through very difficult challenges in recent years.
  • Social Entrepreneur Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children and co-CEO of Me to We, looks for aspiring leaders with the abilities to empathize and cast a vision for leaving a meaningful legacy.
  • Dr. William Ury, co-author of Getting to Yes, offered tips for negotiating the inevitable conflicts that leaders face in bringing people together through challenges and differences.
  • Patrick Lencioni, consultant and author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business, spoke about leaders ensuring their organizations are smart (about finance, strategy, marketing, technology, etc.) and healthy (e.g., minimal politics and confusion, high morale and productivity, low turnover.)


Bill Hybels (author and Senior Pastor of Chicago-based Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago) hosted and emceed the annual Leadership Summit and is convinced that “Trust is at the core of leadership; it’s underneath everything else.” I agree.

After one speaker shared a sad and powerful story of a leader losing trust and effectiveness, Hybels challenged us to be brutally honest with ourselves and led us through a powerful exercise called a trust audit:

  1. Is there any area of your life where you would fail the trustworthiness test – in big or small ways? (Financially, relationally, legally, personally.)
  2. What, if anything, do you need to do to stay or get back on the high road? (Apologize, ask forgiveness, get help, etc.)
  3. Is there anyone you’re leading or a colleague where you suspect or see a trustworthiness problem?  If so, what is your responsibility to address this? What is your next step? (E.g., having a difficult conversation with them or perhaps removing them from leadership.)

Can you imagine the leadership and organization disasters that could be avoided – and the successes that could be achieved – if leaders and companies conducted regular trust audits? It starts with me.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults who loves to coach leaders in strengthening their trustworthiness and impact. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.