A Call to Leaders: Rebuild Trust Through Truth and Vulnerability


“The courage to be vulnerable is not about winning or losing, it’s about the courage to show up when you can’t predict or control the outcome.”

– Dr. Brené Brown

Trust in institutions has eroded

The word trust gets a lot of airtime. All it takes is a quick flip through your favorite news source or social media feed for a hefty dose of reasons why we question our trust in the media, each other, our government, and business. In its recent report Trust and Distrust in America, the Pew Research Center confirms we’re experiencing a crisis in facts and truth. It’s a highly detailed study but makes a central point that this sad state of affairs is tied to the distrust we have in our institutions.

While the report focuses mainly on trust and distrust in government institutions, it also looks at how these beliefs are leading to shrinking levels of trust in each other and our major institutions. Scientists and the military sit at the top. More than 80% of Americans have a fair amount of confidence in these groups to act in the best interests of the public. Our religious leaders, college and university professors, and journalists sit in the middle of the pack. Elected officials and business leaders are at the bottom. More than 40% of the survey group report having little confidence or trust in business leaders — 14% say they have none.

In their related Harvard Business Review piece on trust in modern institutions, The Trust Crisis, Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta point out the financial consequences of corporate betrayals. In 2018, for example, eight of the largest business scandals diminished the value of each respective company by 30% of their original projected worth. Sucher and Gupta argue that building strong relationships with stakeholders demands more than good public relations. Creating and sustaining trust requires clear purpose, smart strategy, and definitive action to acknowledge and remediate negative decisions when necessary. Those commitments take courage and constancy.  Sucher and Gupta are on point with those assertions. What they seem to fail to articulate is that courage begins with individual leaders who are willing and able to create a culture of courage for their company. Without a model of the qualities and behaviors that earn and keep trust, it’s no wonder our modern organizations are experiencing a crisis of confidence.

Trust starts inside

The business leader profile has evolved. Today’s executives require fundamentally different ways of operating, and very different skills and behaviors. No longer is it enough to set strategic direction, define performance goals, align functions and processes, and manage performance for success. Leaders must always be focused on the horizon, which means accepting a level of unease. We also expect our leaders to exemplify authenticity and vulnerability, neither of which are comfortable. Both of those difficult requirements are learned through uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. And they are proven out by doing the hard work to show up, to be fully engaged, and to take responsibility even before knowing the outcome.

As leaders do these things, they model those powerful qualities for others across the organization. The model of a courageous leader is changing. Openness is replacing the ego. Trust and creativity are more valuable than policy and process.

We see proof of these new models in some of the most innovative and impactful organizations in the world. Exemplary leaders like Howard Schultz, Angela Ahrendts, and Beth Comstock are showing their organizations and others who stand back to watch them thrive that there is superior value in authentic human connection. From Comstock’s persistent advocacy of empowerment for change-making to the spaces that Schultz cultivates to nurture culture and diversity, to Ahrendts’ giftedness for empathy, we see leaders who succeed through authenticity and humility. We see leaders who are valued not for their persona, but for their courage to see and share themselves honestly, deeply, and truly.

Great leaders are built

In his renowned TEDx talk and upcoming book, Great Leaders Live Like Drug Addicts, three-time CEO Michael Brody-Waite shares the principles that transformed him from being a drug addict and homeless to founding and leading an Inc. 500 company. At 23 years old, he was drinking and doing drugs. He had been kicked out of college, lost his job and been evicted from his apartment. It was only when he hit rock bottom that he sought help and committed to doing the hard work to overcome his addictions and get clean.

It was through the courageous, future-focused process of saving is own life that Brody-Waite began to practice three daily principles that eventually set him apart as a leader. Not surprisingly, they resonate as the same qualities that we see modeled by trusted companies and leaders like Schultz, Ahrendts, and Comstock — practice rigorous authenticity, surrender the outcome and do uncomfortable work. These are the qualities of great leaders.

Comfort with discomfort and fundamental authenticity is rooted in vulnerability

Developing the courage to be uncomfortable and vulnerable not only has the benefit of creating trustworthiness for the companies we lead, but it is also a benefit to each of us as individuals. Dr. Brené Brown has observed that the more we shield ourselves, the more we grow fearful and disconnected from the world and others.

“Being self-aware, open, and authentic takes the courage to engage fully and openly with the world around us at every level from our intimate network to our organization, to our industry, and to the culture and society at large.”

– Dr. Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Future-focused leading is a call to action for real, honest leadership in an environment that looks almost nothing like it did a decade ago and is changing so rapidly that it will look entirely different in another ten years. It’s a mindset and guiding behavior that prioritizes self-awareness and self-performance to create courageous leaders and courageous companies. The hope is that as more leaders step forward as models of the highest standards of fact-based truth, authenticity, and vulnerability, the trust crisis attacking our productive civilization will start to ease.

About the Authors

Deb Westphal

Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. Her career spans more than 30 years in government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and on virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO and has since contributed her experience and knowledge as a member of the board. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse. Deborah’s empathetic and thought-provoking style helps readers spot patterns that signify future risks and opportunities. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer who provided the Foreword to After Shock. Her book, Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-Centric Future, was published in May 2021 by Unnamed Press. Find her at

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