How to Tell Who You Can Truly Trust in Leadership

So who can you trust… mean truly trust in leadership?

You’ve trusted people you thought you could trust, only to be disappointed or get burned (sometimes badly).

You’ve decided not to trust someone, only to realize you were wrong and he or she was completely trustworthy, and you missed a great opportunity to grow your team.

Trusting people in leadership can be a disheartening and confusing proposition.

But the stakes are high.

Put an untrustworthy person in a position of influence, and they can do a lot of damage fast.

Misjudge trust, and you will never have the team you need to lead you into a better future.

So…is it possible to tell in advance whom you can trust?

Can you ever build a team that you can stop worrying about, and just, well, trust? 

I believe you can.

Here’s how.

trust in leadership

A Better Definition of Trust in Leadership

First, let’s define trust.

I realize it may seem trite to define trust, but I think trust functions differently in leadership than in life.

Trust isn’t about whether you like someone, have a good feeling about them, or think they have potential.

At its heart, trust is confidence. It’s belief in someone’s reliability.

Trust in marriage is believing that even when you are apart you are faithful to one another.

Financial trust is believing that someone will use your money to your benefit, not theirs.

Trusting someone with your favourite keepsake is believing they will care for it as well as you would.

But leadership is more complex.

Just because you would personally trust someone with your wallet doesn’t mean you should trust them in leadership.

And that’s where many of us go wrong.

Many of us think if a person is trustworthy in life they’ll be trustworthy in leadership.

Not necessarily.

Having great character is a prerequisite to leadership; it’s a devastating mistake to invite people into leadership who lie, cheat, steal and do other untrustworthy things. That’s a given.

But you need a different standard, a more nuanced understanding of trust if your team and organization are going to become all they can be.

3 Ways to Tell Who You Can Truly Trust In Leadership

So how exactly do you assess trustworthiness in leadership, then?

Well, if you’re going to have a team that functions amazingly well that you can fully trust (whether that’s a staff team or a volunteer team), you need to address these three issues.

It’s taken me two decades in leadership to figure out a pattern of trust that’s accurate most of the time.

But once you learn the pattern, it’s easy to utilize.

Is it absolutely foolproof? No, but it’s proven to be a very reliable guide.

So with that said, here are 3 ways to tell who you can truly trust in leadership. I’ve framed it in the form of 3 questions.

1. Are they aligned?

This is the first question because it’s the question most leaders overlook. Ignore it, and it will ultimately sink your ship.

Alignment is critical in leadership. I’m going to assume your organization or church has a specific mission, vision and strategy. Almost every organization worth leading does.

Alignment ensures that your team is all pulling in the same direction.

A person may have outstanding character and a great heart, but if they are not aligned with your mission, vision and strategy, they not be an asset to your team.

In fact, they’ll create conflict.

When you try to steer the ship right, they will try to steer it left. When you want to move forward, they will want to move backward. And eventually, your ship might sink.

Alignment is NOT about putting ‘yes’ people in places of leadership.

Quite the opposite, an aligned team will have vigorous debate about how to accomplish the mission, but you won’t have to go through the frustrating, daily debate of which mission to accomplish.

If you want more on alignment, I wrote about 5 things North Point Church has taught me about alignment here.

2. What are their friends like?

Don’t know who said it, but they were right: Show me your friends and I’ll show you your life. 

One of the best things you can do when thinking about inviting a leader onto your team is to see who they hang out with: like attracts like.

A person’s friendship circle will tell you a lot about the kind of person they are…positively and negatively.

If you admire a potential leader’s friends, chances are you will love working with that potential leader. If you don’t, chances are you won’t.

If you see a circle of high capacity people who are very trustworthy around a potential leader, chances are that leader is trustworthy.

If you see a circle of backbiting, gossip, failed relationships or other struggles, chances are that’s what you’re recruiting.

The character of a potential leader’s friends will tell you a lot about their character.

You don’t need to judge here…you just need to discern.

The health of your organization and team matters too much for you to ignore this.

3. What’s their trajectory?

I love the idea of trajectory in leadership.

Trajectory is simply the path followed by an object in motion. You can predict an object’s future course by looking at its past.

The same is true of people.

Every potential leaders you’re considering has a track record…a past that will indicate how they might perform in the future. This is true even of kids and teens (what kind of student/friend are they?).

Often as a leader, you’ll be tempted to ignore a person’s track record. You’ve fallen in love with them (as a leader). And you’ve convinced yourself that ‘this time will be different….I know he/she just needs a better environment’.

Well, maybe. Kind of sounds like a bad marriage ready to happen, doesn’t it?

Wouldn’t you be wiser to look at their past and ask this question?

What have they done with what they’ve been given?

If they couldn’t make it work before, why would they be able to make it work with your team?

Conversely, if they took a small team and made it healthy and grow, maybe you could trust them with a larger team.

If they’ve been responsible with a little, maybe it’s reasonable to trust them with more. (This sounds almost biblical doesn’t it?)

That’s trajectory: a leader’s past is a preview of their future.

Does that mean you shouldn’t give a person a break? After all, maybe this time won’t be like the last time.

Sure, once in a while you might want to do this. But don’t give that person major responsibility when they’ve been irresponsible in the past. Give them a little bit. And pray for them. And help. And watch. And be honest with how they’re doing.

But never hire out of charity–at least if you want an organization that makes an impact. Charity is charity. Hiring is not. Churches mess this up all the time.

So by all means be charitable and radically generous. Give…and expect nothing in return.

For sure, you should always be helping and ministering to people and learning from people. They just don’t have to be the team you’re counting on to push your mission forward.

If you want to advance your mission, recruit people with the skill set you need for the job. Be charitable. But building a great team is not an act of charity.

Find leaders with a track record you want repeated in your organization.

Want More?

By the way, these three questions work personally too. If you’re wondering whether to invest more time with people, these three questions can clarify a lot.

If you want more on developing high capacity teams, this interview with Chris Lema is worth your time. He drops so many gems on how to develop high capacity talent—from scratch. You can listen below or subscribe to my Leadership Podcast for free on iTunes and jump onto Episode 39 with Chris.

I also write more about creating a healthy leadership culture and building high capacity volunteer teams in my new book, Lasting Impact. Learn more, and even download a free chapter, here.

What do you think?

Any other questions you’d add to this list?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Tell Who You Can Truly Trust in Leadership


  1. Luke on February 6, 2018 at 2:29 pm


    Great stuff as always. Thank you!

    Have a followup question or idea for another post. What do you do, smaller churches especially, when most everyone in the pool of people you have to chose from don’t quite measure up to these 3 questions? Are there 1st steps to be taken to get to where you have more leaders that finally do fit the mold?


  2. […] I wrote a full post about using those three questions to filter leadership here. […]

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