Trust can start with leaders’ honesty

...the older I grew, the more I realized how difficult it is to manage a city’s affairs rightly. For I saw that it was impossible to do anything without friends and loyal followers ... when I noted these changes and saw how unstable everything was, I became in the end quite dizzy. (Plato, Epistle VII, 325c-326)
If Plato were alive today, he might make the same observation about 21st century America. Loyal friends and followers appear to be in short supply across the political spectrum. For some, America feels out of whack because of events that seem impossible to control – from the two wars, to the collapse of the banking system and double digit unemployment, to the oil spill in the Gulf. On top of these concerns, the revelations about a few philandering, hypocritical politicians, who were elected to solve our nation’s problems, do little to instill public confidence in government and its leaders. Voters elected President Obama because they wanted change but for some people reforms such as the healthcare overhaul, seem crazy in the context of today’s other problems. Many Americans are confused and, like Plato feel quite dizzy. They do not know which leaders and which institutions they can trust.


After 9/11 Americans needed to trust government, and they did. According to Gallup’s annual governance poll, in early 2002, 59 percent of Americans said they were satisfied with the way that the nation was being governed. The drop in trust today started during the Bush years. At the end of President Bush’s last term, only 26 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with the way the country was being run. As the November elections draw near, leaders would do well to reflect on the nature of trust. Leaders usually think of trust simply as something they earn by keeping their promises, etc., but there are other aspects to developing trust that are worth noting.

The first and most important feature of trust is that it is a reciprocal arrangement between leaders and followers. One reason voters do not trust politicians is because politicians do not trust them or, more importantly, respect them. Respect means treating followers as rational agents who are able to understand the realities of public policy and the decisions leaders must make. All too often, leaders think of trust as a one-way street or worse, as something you tell constituents. Does anyone ever really trust a politician who says, “You can trust me”?

This leads us to the second aspect of trust. People will not trust a leader or an institution that says and does things that do not make sense to them. Trust helps people navigate complexity. Giving trust to constituents requires knowing what information they need to understand current problems and proposals for how to solve them. This includes a full explanation of what a leader wants to do and the reasons for it.

When leaders do not make sense to their followers, followers will not trust them, and they often lose interest in serious political discussion. Instead, they turn to entertainers such as Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and others. This exacerbates the problem because entertainers on the right and the left use hyperbole and humor to evoke an emotional response from their audience. They reinforce the message that politicians and government cannot be trusted.


This leads us to a third aspect of trust. Trust is an emotion and as such, it is not always rational. Right now, the public seems to have a better sense of whom they do not trust than whom they do trust. Whether this translates into a rout of incumbents in the fall remains to be seen. Just because voters do not trust one candidate does not mean they trust the others. We have seen that anger and fear influence voters’ choices at the ballot box. These emotions create a temporary bond against a common enemy, but they do not necessarily create trust. The key task of incumbents this fall is to make sense of what they want to do and have been doing for their constituents. Many voters are feeling “quite dizzy” but that does not mean that they should be treated like they are rationally impaired. Trust has to start somewhere and leaders can start by respecting their followers and telling them the truth. If this sounds politically naïve, then consider this final aspect of trust.

Trust requires one to take a leap of faith, and this takes courage. We can never be certain about how leaders or followers will behave. Nonetheless, trusting people is well worth the risk. Trust allows people work together to solve complex problems. Moreover, it tempers the vertigo of life in a changing world.

Ciulla is a professor and Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics in The Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond.