12/21 – The Importance of Trust: An Analysis of Five Drivers of Trust in the Published Statements of 20 Notable National and International Leaders

Feature Articles / December 2020

Irina Kopaneva, Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, Sherwyn Morreale

Irina Kopaneva
Pamela Shockley-Zalabak
Sherwyn Morreale 

There is much agreement that these are troubling times, characterized by high levels of distrust of many if not most U.S. leaders and institutions.  Indeed, political scientists and other observers of the national scene have noted that over time trust in the U.S. government has waned and never returned to the high-trust levels of the 1950s and 1960s (Keele, 2007).  Likewise, a review of literature on building trust in government in the 21st century identified trust as a crucial issue facing governments in today’s globalized societies (Blind, 2006).  More recently, commentaries in the popular and academic press called attention to the general populace’s lack of trust in government and politicians in the United States (McGee, 2016).  According to the Pew Research Center (2019), public trust today in the U.S. government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 17% of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right, “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%). These observations aside, there is a noticeable dearth of commentaries or recommendations as to how to rectify this lack of trust. 

Against this backdrop of a society characterized by low levels of trust in its leaders and institutions, logical next questions are: Does it matter? Is trust important?  Would higher levels of trust be of benefit to U.S. society, and the global community as well?  Some scholars have argued that higher levels of trust could influence the ability to survive and thrive in the globalized and sometimes turbulent times of the 21st century (Covey & Merrill, 2008; Kramer & Cook, 2004; Morreale & Shockley-Zalabak, 2015). Covey (2008) reported high-trust organizations and institutions experience increased value, accelerated growth, enhanced innovation, improved collaboration, stronger partnering, better execution, and heightened loyalty. To clarify why, Shockley-Zalabak, Morreale, and Hackman (2010), stated that problem-solving, creativity, and innovation are likely to flourish in climates of trust and to shut down when distrust is prevalent. It can be argued that these generalizations about the importance of trust apply, whether the organization is General Motors, Procter and Gamble, or an institution like the U.S. Congress.

If U.S. leaders and institutions presently are distrusted, and if high levels of trust will help to solve problems creatively and innovatively, it may be well advised to revisit some of the times and situations in the past when leaders were trusted.  What did highly trusted national and international leaders have to say about trust that potentially can provide counsel to today’s leaders and institutions? The purpose of this present study is to look back and examine the nature of trust, as articulated in the words of trusted leaders.  We analyzed leaders’ published direct and indirect statements and assertions to determine whether and how they described or referred to trust.  Statements were analyzed qualitatively using an established research-based model that outlines five underlying drivers of trust: competence, openness and honesty, concern for others, reliability, and identification (Shockley-Zalabak, Ellis, & Cesaria, 2000). While this holistic model of trust has been applied to contemporary political figures, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (Shockley-Zalabak, Morreale, & Stavrositu, 2017 & 2019 reprint), it has yet to be applied to public figures who generally have been regarded as highly trusted.  The picture of trust, as painted by leaders from the past, could provide contemporary leaders with the needed encouragement and support to overcome the distrust presently resulting in polarization and a failure to solve critical problems in society.

A Holistic Model of Trust

Descriptions of trust, particularly in popular literature, are numerous and varied. The Shockley-Zalabak et al. (2000) model of trust provides the framework for the investigation of leaders and trust in this study.  The model was developed during an investigative project sponsored by the International Association of Business Communicators (Shockley-Zalabak et al., 2000). The project involved respondents in fifty-three organizations in eight countries on four continents. According to the model, trust had five dimensions or drivers: (1) leader’s competence, that is ability to meet challenges, strategize, make effective decisions, and ultimately achieve objectives; (2) leader’s openness and honesty, that is willingness to communicate about problems, engage in constructive disagreements, provide input into decisions, and evaluate performance; (3) concern for others, that is leader’s ability to listen to followers, act on their needs, concerns, and ideas; (4) reliability, that is leader’s consistent behavior and explanations, his/her ability to keep commitments; and (5) identification, that is leader’s ability to establish connection with followers often based on core values. The results indicated the five identified drivers were strong and stable predictors of organizational (institutional) trust across cultures, languages, industries, and types and sizes of organizations. The more positive were the trust scores, the more effective the organization was perceived to be, and the more satisfied employees were with their jobs. Low trust scores had the opposite effects (Shockley-Zalabak, et al., 2000; Shockley-Zalabak, et al., 2010).

Leaders and Trust Studies

After its development, testing, and publication, the model of trust was used in many dissertations and applied in other studies related to trust, leaders, and leadership, nationally in the U.S. and in other countries. In a qualitative study, Morreale and Shockley-Zalabak (2014) interviewed leaders in organizations in Warsaw, Poland, and St. Petersburg and Moscow, Russia.  Leaders in both countries provided descriptions of trust and distrust in their organizations, emphasizing the importance of relationships in trust-building, and the impact of culture, history, and change on trust.  In 2015, those researchers extended that line of inquiry in a second study in Poland and Russia aimed at better understanding how trust operates in countries where the history and culture have contributed to a norm of distrust.  Personal interviews were again conducted with organizational leaders who confirmed that building trust was based on communication in known relationships and with verifiable results (Morreale & Shockley-Zalabak, 2015).  In both studies in Poland and Russia, the researchers’ trust model served as the organizational framework for the interviews.

In 2017/2019, Shockley-Zalabak, Morreale, and Stavrositu turned their attention to the role of trust in presidential politics in the U.S.  Their study explored voters’ perceptions of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump regarding their general trust in the two 2016 presidential candidates.  Two online census-representative, national surveys, based on the trust model, were conducted to examine voters’ perceptions.  Results confirmed relatively low trust levels for both Clinton and Trump, but with some statistically significant differences between the candidates on various of the five drivers.  In 2018, a qualitative study also examined the role of trust in the 2016 election, focusing on the verbal statements related to trust of candidates Clinton and Trump, in their nomination acceptance speeches and during three debates.  Analysis of the candidates’ positive and negative statements about trust revealed all five drivers of trust were evident in their speeches, with Clinton using more fact-based positive statements than Trump and Trump using more negative accusations than Clinton.

Relatedly, communication scholars have pointed to dimensions of trust as some of the most important attributes of the ideal presidential candidate as a leader (Trent, Short-Thompson, Mongeau, & Metzler, 2017).  In their 28-year longitudinal study conducted in presidential elections from 1988 to 2016, they examined voters’ ideas of the ideal presidential candidate, asking what attributes they found most important or desirable.  Several attributes were identified that could be considered characteristics of trust, such as competence, honesty, high moral integrity, and compassion for other people’s needs.

Other recent studies also have studied trust in relation to leaders and leadership.  Although not based on the model of trust applied here, they offer important insights into the nature of some leadership qualities that are reflected in the trust model’s drivers.  For example, Isotalus and Almonkari (2014) analyzed the kinds of qualities in a political leader that media called for during a scandal and discovered that the occurrence of a scandal triggered discussion on trust in politicians.  They also found that the evaluation of professional competence was crucial.  Jiang and Luo (2018) found that authentic leaders, i.e. those who understood, accepted, and stayed true to self (see Harter, 2002), directly and significantly influenced the level of trust employees had in their organizations. Importantly, authentic leadership also indirectly affected employee trust via transparent communication and employee engagement.  In another study, Men and Stacks (2014) found that transparent communication, characterized by information substantiality, accountability, and follower participation, contributed to employee trust. Zhu and Akhtar (2014) proposed and tested a dual process model which included cognition-based trust (i.e. trust based on followers’ perceptions of their leader’s reliability, integrity, and other similar qualities) and affect-based trust (i.e. trust based on expressions of care and concern for the welfare of others).  The results indicated that both types of trust were important but in different ways.  Whereas cognition-based trust contributed to followers’ performance, affect-based trust contributed to followers’ job satisfaction.  The study presented here contributes to these important findings by applying a holistic model that encompasses five different drivers to historically significant public figures perceived as trustworthy.  By doing so, we hope to further our understanding of not only trust in general but also the nuances of each specific driver.  These two research questions will accomplish those goals:

  1. Were the five drivers of trust evidenced in statements and writings of trusted leaders? 
  2. If the five trust drivers were evidenced in the statements of leaders, to what extent, if at all, can general approaches or themes to describing the drivers be identified?


Data Collection

To determine which trusted leaders to include in the study, we utilized the results of published polls (Smith, 2019; Zylstra, 2018) and other sources (Goodwin, 2018) that identified trusted leaders in the U.S., as well as other countries.  We selected leaders who were deceased, appeared on more than one poll, and represented a long time period, spanning from the 1700’s to the present. The selected 20 public figures represented various religions, nationalities, ages, genders, ethnicities, and professions.  Some of those on the list had faced significant historical challenges during their public careers.  As a point of clarification, we did not seek to study only universally admired leaders with impeccable histories.  In fact, some of the 20 leaders were controversial figures who were both lavishly praised and sharply criticized at times.  What mattered during the data selection process was the public’s general trust in the leaders that remained consistent over time.  Table 1 outlines the diversity of the list of leaders selected for examination in this study.

Table I

            After the leaders were identified, one of the researchers collected copies of their letters and books, transcripts of their speeches, as well as statements about trust widely known and cited on both academic or professional websites (such as the University of Virginia and the Miller Center’s database, the Nobel Prize organization, the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, Bombay Sarvodaya Mandal and Gandhi Research Foundation), and general popular websites (such as brainyquote.com).  The data units collected for this study included both individual sentences and longer multi-sentence passages.  The unit selection process was guided by the following criteria.  First, the researchers selected those units that explicitly mentioned trust or any of its dimensions, such as competence, reliability, etc. (e.g., “Mutual trust is essential for success in the final nation-wide struggle that is to come,” M. Gandhi).  Second, the researchers also included those units that discussed trust dimensions indirectly, i.e. without the explicit use of specific labels such as competence, openness, honesty etc. (e.g., “I’ve become an old man now, and I’ve preached all over the world,” B. Graham).  Finally, those units that discussed various attributes of trust but could not be easily categorized within the five trust drivers were also considered appropriate (e.g., “He [my grandfather] was a born leader, fit for command not because of an imposing physical presence, but because he possessed an easy, natural authority with his men, whom he seemed to understand as if he had known them all their lives,” J. McCain).  The length of each unit was determined based on how full and sufficient the information it contained was for understanding dimensions of trust.  The total number of data units analyzed in this study was 451.

Data Analysis

Using the Shockley-Zalabak et al. (2000) trust model, one researcher did trial coding and analysis of the statements by the first three leaders.  The authors of this study agree with Miles, Huberman, and Saldaña (2014) who argue that “coding is deep reflection about and, thus, deep analysis and interpretation of the data’s meaning” (p. 72).  For this reason, as well as to ensure agreement on the analytic procedure, all three researchers met after the first three sets of statements were coded to verify the accuracy of these initial results and to develop descriptive codes for each driver.  As a result of the discussion, and in conversation with previous studies that applied the same model (e.g.: Morreale & Shockley-Zalabak, 2018), the following coding categories were developed for use in this present study:

  1. Competence: references to past achievements, success, failures; self-descriptions including references to expertise, skills, and psychological qualities required for achieving goals (such as willingness to take responsibility).
  2. Openness and honesty: acknowledgment of difficulties; references to problems, struggles, and failures; references to fear, doubts, and/or uncertainty experienced by the leader; acknowledgment of other viewpoints; examples of how disagreements with others were handled.
  3. Concern for others: statements of concern for others; knowledge of followers’ needs; references to conversations with others about their problems/needs; examples of decisions made in response to the others’ needs.
  4. Reliability: references to and evaluation of (in)consistent behavior by self or others; references to continued adherence to initial values and goals; statements of determination to fulfil promises and pursue declared goals in the future.
  5. Identification: statements of shared values and ideals with followers; statements of shared destiny; statements of intention to pursue followers’ interests as own.

After the descriptive codes were identified, all the researchers independently coded trust-related statements and then discussed the results to determine levels of agreement, as well as to discuss the statements that could not be easily categorized.  Consensus was reached for all 451 statements included in the research. The researchers also discussed emergent themes that either nuanced the five drivers or provided new insight into trust in general.


Taken as a whole the 451 statements included in the study provided an affirmative answer to the question as to whether the five drivers of trust were in evidence in the public statements and writings of these 20 leaders.  Nineteen of the leaders made or wrote statements coded in all five of the drivers and one leader made or wrote statements coded in four drivers.  These findings do not imply that these leaders in all their statements and writings used either some or all of the drivers.  The findings relate specifically to the sample included in this research.

Based on an affirmative answer to the first research question, thematic analysis of the 451 statements was conducted to determine if there were general approaches or themes that could be identified across this diverse set of leaders.  The following themes or approaches were identified for each of the five drivers.  

The competence driver was approached most commonly through statements of inspiring goals framed as dreams for the future, descriptions of willingness to change, engaging in action, utilizing experience of self and others, perseverance, excellent performance, and hard work.  Hard work was the most common descriptor of the competence driver. 

The openness and honesty driver was described as fundamental and important, key to building confidence for difficult problems, important for happiness and well-being, uncomfortable but necessary, acknowledging self as less than perfect, and acknowledging vulnerabilities.

The concern for others driver was presented as understanding others, working for the people and the nation, having goals to better the lives of others, fighting evils which threaten individuals and the masses, encouraging broad participation in addressing problems, and expressing empathy, compassion, and forgiveness.

The reliability driver was characterized by references to past difficult times, encouraging all to link words and actions, and describing self as consistent over time.  Perseverance was linked to consistent behaviors.

The identification driver was articulated through evoking a common enemy, offering common values and qualities that can be ideally shared, expressing common pride, describing self as a servant to the people, and encouraging working together for a desired future.

Finally, although descriptive of the manner in which trust drivers and general statements were utilized by the leaders in the study, these findings cannot be interpreted as causal or necessarily building the overall trust attributed to these leaders.  The findings are presented as representative of the communicative approaches of the leaders in the study.


This project contributes to trust and leadership literatures in two broad ways. First, we highlighted the deeply communicative nature of trust in leaders. Although not negating the importance of the outcomes of the challenges the leaders faced, the results indicated the critical role their communicative approach played in their trust status. The leaders in the study were diverse across time periods, types of challenges faced, professions, cultures, genders, races, nationalities, and communicative styles. However, the striking commonalities present in their statements confirmed the link between trust and the five trust drivers in Shockley-Zalabak et al.’s (2000) model. The results indicated that the qualities of competence, openness and honesty, concern for others, reliability, and identification frequently projected by leaders in organizational contexts, have been effectively utilized by political and social leaders over time.  Second, in an important extension to the extant research, this study provides a more nuanced description of each of the drivers, while also pointing to their interdependencies rather than a siloed coexistence. For example, leaders often framed goals as dreams, that is as something both daunting and highly desirable (competence driver) and while acknowledging their own weaknesses, such as fear, uncertainty, and doubts (openness and honesty driver), they also underscored the importance of followers (identification driver).

Regarding limitations, the polls and research utilized to select the 20 leaders were diverse with differing methodologies and differing rigor in data collection.  The general agreement about the selection of these leaders as trusted can be supported but undoubtedly there are reasons to suggest the list of 20 leaders is flawed.  The sources from which the research data were drawn are not comprehensive of all the public statements and writings of the leaders in the study.  An argument can be made that while the data collection process was extensive it is not fully comprehensive.

The study does point to the importance of thinking about trusted leaders from the past and how their communication and actions contributed to known outcomes during critical challenges.  Future work should expand on this examination of past leaders to include a better understanding of how they selected the approaches they used and how the public viewed their approaches in the actual times they were leading.  The study also points to a need to better understand current leaders through a lens of trust.


The leaders in this study contributed to their generally favorable trust status through their words and action.  Across the five drivers of trust their communication choices focused on unifying messages not polarization.  They presented the opportunity to share in large visions requiring bravery and, at times, sacrifice.  These leaders expressed confidence in change and in the people as a whole.  They identified common values and dreams.  They suggested their commonalities with others and underscored the need for hard work and perseverance.  In many ways, their approaches seem timeless.  However, the general distrust in U.S. society today speaks to a different reality.  These leaders provide potential approaches for addressing today’s low trust in leaders and institutions.  They also provide important examples of building trust as fundamental to addressing critical challenges. 


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Irina M. Kopaneva (Ph.D., Washington State University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Her main research interests include identity, organizational purpose, and alternative organizing. 

Pamela Shockley-Zalabak, Ph.D. is President of CommuniCon, Inc., an organizational and leadership development corporation. She is Chancellor and Professor Emerita of the University of Colorado Colorado Springs(UCCS) and the author of 9 books and over 100 other publications and productions. She is the founding member of the UCCS Communication Department and continued to teach and research throughout her tenure as Chancellor. As Chancellor, Dr. Shockley-Zalabak was responsible for guiding a 75% increase in students to over 12,500, was responsible for supporting new academic programs, and was part of an over $500,000,000 expansion in campus facilities. Dr. Shockley-Zalabak, as part of her consulting responsibilities, currently is the Senior Advisor to the United States Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame and works with other non-profits in Colorado and other states.

Sherwyn Morreale (Ph.D., University of Denver, 1989) is Professor in Communication at University of Colorado Colorado Springs. Her main research interests include the nature of trust, the importance of communication, online teaching and learning, public speaking, communication competence, and communication education in K-12 and higher education. Since the award of the doctoral degree, Morreale has authored 50 refereed articles in top-tier journals, 21 books, and seven articles and chapters for collected volumes and encyclopedias in the communication discipline. She has presented 206 peer-reviewed and invited presentations at academic meetings and conventions. Those presentations resulted in top panel and distinguished article awards. In 2009, Morreale received the Annual Award for Communication Excellence in the Discipline from the Rocky Mountain Communication Association, and in 2010, the Samuel L. Becker Distinguished Service Award from the National Communication Association. Morreale teaches key courses in the Communication Graduate Program, as well as advanced and online public speaking. From 1997-2005, she served as the Associate Director of National Communication Association.

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