Leadership without trust! Is it possible?

How can she do it! How on earth can Teresa May lead the UK through Brexit, without trust?


We’re talking here about a radical transformation that impacts peoples’ rights, businesses, social care, education, the economy and democracy. Some will win. Many stand to lose. In the midst of this uncertainty, how can Teresa May encourage the nation to follow her? With her trust ratings at rock bottom during this year’s elections and senior Tories doubting her leadership as negotiations get underway, is it even possible?

Good leaders inspire others to follow them

Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.
— Stephen Covey

Good leaders, whether business or political, seek to inspire trust because that’s a surefire way to get people to follow them. They know that trust cannot be commanded. That it has to be earned and that one of the keys to earning trust is trustworthiness. So good leaders seek to convince others that they can be believed in and relied upon. That they mean what they say and say what they mean. They "seek first to understand", one of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People described be Stephen Covey.  They take the time to listen to people's concerns and encourage their engagement. They take every opportunity to reassure others that they have the skills and competence to do what they propose to do. They seek to be open and transparent, ensuring their messages are clear and free of ambiguity. They find ways to demonstrate that they genuinely care and are not just in it for themselves.

Good leaders are sincere, reliable, competent and caring

Looking back to this years elections, while the general consensus may well have been that Teresa May could competently lead the country, her public back tracking on promises and a manifesto that was, according to Former Tory MP Stewart Jackson, “all about what we'll stop them having and what we'll not give them” did nothing to inspire a sense of reliability, sincerity or care. Her reluctance to meet people is described as striking, earned her the nickname of 'cold fish' and caused people to question her humanity. 

Theresa May’s inability to show emotion to the public proves that she isn’t fit to be Prime Minister
Of course she has heart, but she doesn’t think it’s as important as a cool head in a crisis. Fine, but that’s not what politics is about, or at least not in this political age.
— Sean O'Grady, Journalist, The Independent

Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand appeared to understand the importance of trust. Despite a sustained media campaign, publicly declaring him to be unfit to lead the country, many felt that he ‘walked his talk’ and stood by what he believed in. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, we could surmise that if he was not sure, he sat on the fence. As frustrating as this was, perhaps it was better than saying one thing and doing another. Above all Corbyn demonstrated that he genuinely cared about people. So policies aside, for many people Corbyn’s trust rating was a lot higher than May’s.

Good leaders read their own and others emotions

As well as projecting trustworthiness, good leaders also need emotional intelligence. They need to be able to read and learn from, their own and others emotions. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, explains that this enables them to recognise patterns and invisible forces at play in any situation.

Thus with emotional intelligence leaders can have the insight to recognise if a lack of clarity in their communication is generating uncertainty and anxiety and seek to be more transparent. They will be aware of the presence of 'undiscussables' that are thwarting progress and put appropriate measures in place to bring them into the open. They will realise cycles of mistrust and take steps to resolve them.

Good leaders have strong social and relationship skills

Leaders with emotional intelligence are also skilled in responding to and managing relationships. They are open and appreciative of feedback from others, rewarding rather than shoot messengers. And they are expert negotiators.

She told us she was going to get us out of this mess. That’s fine, but do it first and then say you’re going to stay on for years.
What she’s said is going to go down really badly. It implies that she’s learned nothing. She needs to show a lot more humility and understanding of what’s going on in the party. There’s a lot of untapped anger that could break out at any time.
— Former Tory Minister, Politics Home, August 2017

Teresa May's track record here is not great. Several times during Prime Ministers Questions she became completely closed off when contradicted. Recent media reports suggest that her lack of empathy is increasingly losing her the respect of fellow ministers. The question we might ask ourselves is, is this the usual bickering between ministers? Or is it the elephant in the room in ministerial circles that no one wants to tackle directly?

One thing that is clear for me, is that in today's society a lack of empathy can only hamper negotiations with other EU leaders. I believe that successful negotiations need openness and trust to be able to create mutually beneficial wins and importantly to leave the door open for future relations. 

Is emotional intelligence the cornerstone of trust?

I see trustworthiness and emotional intelligence as intertwined. To my mind, a trustworthy leader is likely to have strong emotional intelligence and a leader with emotional intelligence will be seen as trustworthy. Trusted leaders read and learn from their own and others emotions by listening, asking a question and listening some more.

Perhaps the question we want to ask ourselves is, how far are we willing to follow someone who knows the ‘how to’ but doesn’t have the emotional skill to support us on the journey?  How far can we go if a leader’s actions and words are feeding cycles of mistrust rather than alleviating them? How much can we trust someone if we feel that they are disregarding our needs? Above all how can we encourage other people (or nations) to care about us, if we are not doing the same... for ourselves or them?

Strong and stable she might be but does Teresa May have the emotional intelligence to successfully negotiate with Europe’s leaders? How willing is she to engage with and listen to her colleagues? Does she care enough about us to want to inspire our trust and bring us along with her?

Two great questions for leaders to ask to encourage engagement:

  • What's on your mind?

  • What else?

Why not try: Think about your relationships. How do you interact with others? Where can you build more trust? Do you always have their interests in mind as well as your own? Do you listen to others, to what they are trying to say and what they are trying to communicate? Before you speak or act, do you ask yourself if what you want to say will serve them? Are you aware of where you might have common interests? Are your communications always clear and free of ambiguity?

You might like: Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman