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Why Building Trust Is the Most Important Element to Business Success

In the world of leadership and trust, few names resonate as strongly as Stephen M.R. Covey. He carries a legacy closely tied to his father’s groundbreaking work, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which was one of the most influential self-improvement books of the 20th century.

Mr. Covey co-founded CoveyLink, a consultancy firm, and is a leader at the coaching company co-founded by his father, FranklinCovey, both of which emphasize a movement toward trust and increased transparency in business ethics. His philosophy centers on the belief that nothing moves as swiftly as the speed of trust, making trust between partners critical for navigating the global economy. He defines leadership as producing results while inspiring trust, a pragmatic approach that enhances an organization’s ability to execute existing strategies. Mr. Covey’s insights on trust, leadership, ethics, and high performance have made him a sought-after speaker and advisor.

In this interview with American Essence, Mr. Covey discusses his latest book, “Trust & Inspire: How Truly Great Leaders Unleash Greatness in Others,” in which he challenges the traditional “Command & Control” model of leadership in favor of “Trust & Inspire,” whereby leaders can foster creativity and potential within people.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

American Essence: What prompted you to explore the theme of trust in leadership and organizations as a central focus of your life’s work?

Mr. Covey: I was profoundly influenced by my father, Dr. Stephen R. Covey. Certainly by his professional work, but before it was out in the world it was in our home—we kids were the first guinea pigs!

In “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book, my father tells the story of “Green & Clean,” which is about teaching me to take care of our lawn when I was 7 years old. He uses the story to illustrate stewardship and win-win agreements. But I was 7—I had no idea what those things even meant! I just knew that he trusted me, and I didn’t want to let him down.

Through the years, it has become clear to me that being trusted is the most inspiring form of human motivation. Going into business, and particularly as a CEO, I began to really understand that trust is not merely a soft, social virtue but rather a hard-edged, economic driver. Trust always affects the speed at which we can move, and the cost of everything.

Over time, I began to see the presence (or absence) of trust everywhere and in everything. It became clear that trust is the one thing that changes everything, and that trust is a learnable skill—a competency. Experiencing and understanding trust from this perspective is what makes trust so powerful, so accessible, and so relevant.

AE: Can you discuss the importance of nurturing talent in others and how it ties into the concept of inspiring leadership?

Mr. Covey: I like the way this question is asked. One of the 5 Fundamental Beliefs of Trust & Inspire Leaders is that “people have greatness inside of them—so my job as a leader is to unleash their potential, not control them.” The implication of this belief is that there is genuine talent within everyone.

I maintain that the role of a leader is like that of a gardener, where the real power, the potential, is within the seed. The word “inspire” comes from the Latin word “inspirare,” which means “to breathe life into.” Without the proper conditions—water, soil, light—a seed will remain dormant, never realizing what it can do or become. The gardener nurtures and creates the right conditions for that seed to grow and flourish.

With people, we first have to really see someone’s potential. I like how Henry David Thoreau put it: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” When we see another’s potential, we can then communicate it to them so that they come to see it themselves. Then, our job as leaders is to develop their potential, and then, ultimately, to unleash it. It’s an ongoing cycle: see, communicate, develop, and unleash potential.

AE: Can you elaborate on the central concept of “Trust & Inspire” and how it addresses the challenges of traditional leadership models in today’s world?

Mr. Covey: The basis for traditional leadership flows heavily out of the industrial age. It’s often referred to as “Command & Control.” It’s all about efficiency and getting results through people. That’s not a bad thing; people are the ones who do the work, and we’ve made a great deal of progress in how they’re treated over the years. The central premise, though, is that people are a means to an end. Trust & Inspire is also centrally focused on results, but recognizes that people are not just a “means to an end”; they are an end, in and of themselves.

When people experience that they and their own growth and development matter as much as the results they produce, they’re inspired. When people are inspired, they’re able to tap into far greater levels of energy, engagement, creativity, passion, and commitment. They become phenomenally capable and perform better. Plus, they experience greater well-being. You simply cannot “Command & Control” this kind of performance out of people—you can’t buy it out of them. But they are able to tap into this, and contribute this, when they feel trusted and inspired.

(Biba Kayewich for American Essence)

AE: In your view, what are the key attributes that differentiate a leader who focuses on trust and inspiration from one who relies on authority and control?

Mr. Covey: Command & Control and Trust & Inspire are both focused on outcomes. Command & Control leaders tend to rely heavily on management of both people and things to get outcomes. Trust & Inspire leaders differentiate between management and leadership. Both skill sets are vital, but they are as different as they are important. The reality is that people don’t want to be managed, they want to be led. They want to be trusted, they want to be inspired.

AE: Could you provide an example from your book that illustrates the transformational impact of the “Trust & inspire” leadership model on an organization or team?

Mr. Covey: The transformation at Microsoft after Satya Nadella became CEO is a good case-in-point. At the time, the organization was really struggling. In Nadella’s words, “Innovation was being replaced by bureaucracy. Teamwork was being replaced by internal politics. We were falling behind.” They were also losing talent left and right. Satya came in, working closely with his executive vice president of human resources, Kathleen Hogan, and focused on changing the culture. They started with themselves and modeled the kind of behavior they were seeking: humility and courage, authenticity and vulnerability, empathy and performance. The leadership paradigm became one of trusting and inspiring others, manifested by adopting a growth mindset, not just for the leaders, but for everyone.

AE: In your research and experience, what challenges might leaders face when transitioning to a more trust-based leadership style? Any advice on how they can overcome these challenges?

Mr. Covey: I’ve learned the biggest barrier to becoming a Trust & Inspire leader tends to be that most people think they already are one! It’s a good problem to have because in general many really are partway there. What I find when I share what a Trust & Inspire leader is, people completely agree with the concept—intellectually. We know Command & Control doesn’t work well, and I don’t know that I have come across anyone who hasn’t experienced a Trust & Inspire leader somewhere in their life. The difference is night and day, the impact is profound, and most intend to lead this way and be this kind of leader for others.

What happens is that “style” often gets in the way of intent. We’re all deeply scripted, and when the pressure is on, we tend to go for efficiency and revert to what we know. This theme comes up constantly. The good news is that we can learn and choose to match our style to our intent.

People really want to operate this way, but have genuine concerns. They may feel like “this clearly is better, but it just won’t work here,” or “this is who I am, it’s who I’ve always been.” Some may sincerely fear “what if I lose control?” or “I don’t know how to let go.” These are all valid concerns, and I offer a mindset and solution to each of them.

(Biba Kayewich for American Essence)

AE: What strategies can leaders use to create an environment that encourages open communication, risk-taking, and learning from failures?

Mr. Covey: I highlight three stewardships of Trust & Inspire leaders: Modeling, Trusting, & Inspiring. Modeling is always the best place to start. Go first. Someone needs to go first. Leaders go first. Model open communication, risk-taking, and learning from failure.

Trusting others deliberately and explicitly to do the same is incredibly powerful. When they have your trust and really know that your trust is in them, rather than being conditional upon the outcome, you get far better outcomes.

Inspiring is to take an experience, even a failure, and imbue it with purpose. It proves the risk is worth it. It encourages a worker to become a creator.

When we model, trust, and inspire, we cultivate fertile soil that encourages and brings the very best out of others.

AE: Could you share some practical techniques or exercises from your book that leaders can use to build trust and inspire their teams?

Mr. Covey: On building trust, we certainly have to be trustworthy, but I work with organizations all over the world that are filled with trustworthy people, and yet, have low trust. To really build trust, you have to give it to get it. In other words, you not only need to be trustworthy, you need to be trusting. Look for ways to extend meaningful trust.

To inspire, start with yourself. It’s like the airline metaphor: Put your own mask on first before helping others. If you’re not inspired, you’ll have a hard time inspiring anyone else. An unlit candle cannot light other candles, but a lit candle can.

Second, connect with people through genuine caring and building a real sense of belonging. Caring will allow you to inspire others, and belonging on a team leads to the team inspiring each other.

An exercise I might add, that has an enormous impact on both building trust and inspiring, is this: Treat people according to their potential, not their behavior. There’s no better way to unleash that potential. Practice this. Don’t “eat the elephant all at once” and try to do this with everyone. Begin with one person. Ask yourself, “Who in my personal or professional life would benefit most by being trusted and inspired by me?” And then start there.

From Dec. Issue, Volume 3