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Leaders can lead only to the degree that followers trust them. People of high moral character tend to be perceived as trustworthy, but character is not the only basis upon which trust is established. We trust people who are good at what they do. Experts enjoy the benefit of our respect, admiration and deference. We trust them until they prove untrustworthy.

The complexity of life can be distilled into three broad areas of competence: time, money and relationships. We instinctively make judgments about the people we meet and develop impressions of how well they manage time, money, and relationships. Those who appear to do well are more easily trusted than those who cannot meet deadlines, stay within a budget or maintain healthy relationships.

A person’s ability to manage time builds or diminishes their trustworthiness. When projects are consistently late, when deadlines are routinely missed, and when appointments are habitually delayed, we tend to lower our trust in that person. When work is accomplished in its allotted time, when projects are completed on schedule, and when appointments are kept promptly, we know we can depend on the person responsible. There will always be delays, traffic jams, or emergencies that will create a timing crisis; followers tend to be forgiving of anomalies. But consistent failure in time management erodes trust.

A person’s use of money influences their perceived trustworthiness. If I loan someone money and I am repaid on schedule, I am much more likely to loan them more the next time they ask. They have built trust by their responsible behavior with money. However, if they do not meet their obligation the first time, there will probably not be a second loan. As the old saying goes, Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me. When we consistently overspend, habitually face insufficient funds, and are unable to live within our means, we lower our perceived trustworthiness and lessen our ability to lead.

How a person manages relationships creates a context within which trust will flourish or regress. In a corporate setting we need to hire well, train well, supervise well, evaluate well, promote well and, if necessary, terminate well. At home and in our personal relationship how well we engage with those we love, how well we address differences, how well we protect our commitments and how well we communicate all impact how others perceive us and whether or not they will extend or recall their trust.

Of course, life is more than time, money and people. Special gifts, talents, training, skills and expertise should be added to the mix. But the three big arenas that are common to us all are time, money and relationships. They provide important windows into our basic life competencies that people evaluate as they decide how willing they are to trust. The delicate leader-follower relationship will develop only to the extent that a follower is willing to trust a leader. And a leader’s competence provides the security for that trust to grow.

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