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Lessons from Stephen M.R. Covey on trust

Trust requires two people, but you can go first.

6 min read


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How do you approach people? Do you have enthusiasm? Do you give them the benefit of the doubt? Do you go further, and extend to them trust?

If you start with trust, you’ve taken the first step toward a trust-based, effective and engaged culture that can execute. If you don’t or can’t trust, you are incurring what Stephen M.R. Covey calls “a tax at every gate.”

This was a key message Thursday at a half-day FranklinCovey event in Bethesda, Md., for leaders in industry, nonprofits and the public sector. Covey led the discussion on trust, followed by Catherine Nelson on effectiveness and habits, and Chris McChesney on execution.

Funny thing with these sorts of events is that, on the surface, all these things seem obvious. Trust clearly helps build relationships, which help get results. Good habits help you be more effective. Feeling like your work is important is motivating, which is good for execution, as is a process that identifies leading goals and distinguishes the important from the urgent. Hard to argue with these statements!

But saying those things and actually practicing them reveals the difficulty and the work involved — and that’s before we consider the variables of specific use cases, professions, on-the-ground challenges and a rapidly changing marketplace.

It’s not enough to have values written down or to set about accomplishing things without a framework, coordination or check-ins. It’s not enough to be qualified if you haven’t intent or character, or to be upstanding but not deliver results. It’s not enough to be a standout performer if you don’t and can’t engage with others and live up to your commitments.

Even if you do the right things once, time takes its toll. Think of any training you’ve undergone. How much have you retained? Perhaps the key points and themes, and perhaps you’re applying them well and have built values on top of them. But wouldn’t a refresher remind you of forgotten lessons? For example, Nelson talked about how influential “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” was for her early in her career, but when it came time to work with FranklinCovey, she needed (and wanted) to go back and re-read it.

In that same way, trust is always ongoing; it can be lost, sometimes even regained, but it is not static. Copy and paste into your particular situation.

Covey’s talk offered numerous examples of these nuances, including stories about Southwest Airlines, Frito-Lay and other companies. But beyond the anecdotes are principles. You can view here an outline of what he means by credibility and competency being the ingredients of trust, the cores of those two traits, and the 13 behaviors of high trust.

What did I come away with?

At the most personal, it’s nice to be in a room where other people are openly concerned with how we behave, interact, influence and lead — that the work we do here with this blog and the newsletter aren’t for naught. But more broadly, I came away thinking that trust is really a three-level thing:

  1. Trust in yourself. Do you believe in yourself and your talents and capabilities? Do you believe you are worthy of being trusted? Do you believe you can open yourself up to others?

  2. Trust in others. Trust requires two people, as Covey said, but “you can go first.” This doesn’t mean being gullible, or what Covey calls “blind trust.” Obviously, you need to use your senses and wits. And, perhaps your gift of trust is deeper with someone you know well than with a stranger. But consider being generous — after all, there is no such thing as engagement at arms’ length..

  3. Trust in the process. As I am fond of saying, leading and managing is a never-ending task. You cannot perfect trust or leadership, nor can you rush them. But leaders have to model and encourage the giving, reciprocating and earning of trust if they want the culture to adopt the mindset and put it into practice. It was fitting that the event began with “trust” and ended with “execution.” The two are interwined more deeply than most of us realize. As Ted Bauer recent wrote, “Ludicrous how often we discuss ‘trust’ and ‘reputation’ in business journalism and yet, it barely matters to many managers at the execution level. If it did, we’d have more ability to work independently and see problems through. We don’t, though.”

Patience and resolve

I realize many of you have read these articles before about trust, behavior and culture. Doesn’t it sound so easy? I know it’s not. So, let’s go back to those 13 behaviors of high trust, which conenct to the two cores each of, respectively, competency and credibility. Could you imagine try to take on all of those at once? Or trying to build three or four habits, simultaneously, of the seven habits of highly effective people?

Instead, at Thursday’s event, Covey encouraged us to pick one of the four cores to work on, and two behaviors to particularly focus on. As with most things, you must start with a step before you break into a run. What am I working on? I could find reason to work on any of the 17, but that would be counterproductive. So I’m limiting myself, for now, to Intent, Get Better, and Practice Accountability.

Of course, in just a few hours, we weren’t able to effect these change. But perhaps we came away with a clearer mindset, some starting points and, with a little luck, a path toward influence. As you work to improve yourself, others and your organization, think about where you can start small to improve yourself, open yourself up to the trust of others, and build the future.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief’s leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for entrepreneurs, manufacturers and various other industries. Find him at @SBLeaders or email him.