Back to Blog
Photo of NLIL group with linked arms

Building trust. This is the most fundamental, irreducible task for movement network leaders and members. Trust is the glue that holds networks together, binding leaders, organizations, constituency groups, issues, and sectors.

Mark Leach, Creating Culture: Promising Practices of Movement Network Leaders

In part one of this series, we described how leadership within an organization or network needs to flex (depending on the specific situation) between opposite points of a spectrum from Directive to Adaptive. In part two of this series, we explored what leadership looks like if it is directive, adaptive, or in-between (where folks use advice and consulting). We also raised a challenge to positional leaders: to attend to the readiness and capacity of self and others to respond appropriately given the challenge at hand and the group’s shared purpose. 

At every point on the spectrum, trust is key. Leadership cannot happen unless two or more people trust each other to align their beliefs, values, and actions. Flexing across the leadership spectrum takes more trust – trust that shifts in leadership are temporary and reasonable. Operating in a culture of shared leadership, which most successful movement networks and networked organizations do, requires even more trust. 

So what can leaders in our movements do to forge the trust needed to flex along the spectrum? There are four key components of trust that leaders need to cultivate:

  1. Risk-reward calculation
  2. Transparent communication 
  3. Reliability
  4. Respect

We explore each one in turn. 

Risk-Reward Calculation

At the base level, individuals and partner organizations weigh the risk of trusting (or not trusting) against the reward of trusting (or not trusting) and make a decision about whether to act or not.   Every person and organization has a different level of risk tolerance; thus, they will make different decisions about the same opportunity. Leaders can increase the rewards and reduce the risks of trusting—or they can increase the risk of not trusting. On the adaptive end of the leadership spectrum, positional leaders also need to make it easy for people to take a leap of faith to begin working together. This happens by fostering relationships through transparent communication and by building reliability and mutual respect. 

In a movement network we worked with, the steering committee did this by having one-on-one listening conversations to understand the needs, preferences, and priorities of each partner. They then facilitated a group dialogue to reflect back what was learned. Having felt truly heard, the group itself recognized that the potential to win together outweighed the certain failure of going it alone. The network then developed principles for working together and identified low-risk, short-term ways for clusters of partners to develop joint relationships. 

Transparent Communication

Trust based on a risk-reward calculation alone is weak. Transparent communication is needed to strengthen trust and bridge differences. There are many differences we encounter among the leaders in our movements. Some differences are about style and many are about power and privilege, such as the differences between small and large organizations, Washington DC “beltway” organizations and grassroots groups, people-of-color-led and non-people-of-color-led organizations, board and staff roles, or junior and senior staff. 

To bridge these differences, leaders across the spectrum need to ensure that:

  • There is consistent information-sharing: Communication processes that are regular, multi-directional, and are tailored to multiple ways of knowing keep people in the loop and ensure that information remains true to form as people spread the news. Clarity about what the recipient should do with the information and how things are progressing from beginning to end is also important.
  • People show up fully: Sometimes when we are focused on justice, we talk about issues, campaigns, and tactics without connecting and sharing information on a personal level. Mutually revealing our human experiences, our core passions, our frustrations, and our desires contributes to a culture of trust as we develop deeper knowledge of and respect for ourselves and each other. It is important that people with positional authority model this kind of vulnerability to create the space for others to show up fully.

As leaders shift towards the adaptive side of the spectrum, the quality of relationships among people and organizations becomes more critical. Adaptive leaders build the capacity of the group to engage in:

  • Honest feedback: There are many reasons that people do not share honestly their opinions, but dishonesty can cause groups to stagnate and mistrust to fester. Adaptive leaders prepare people to have courageous conversations, to give and receive feedback and to share their opinions (and disagreements) openly. They also model using feedback constructively rather than punitively.
  • Conversations about power and privilege: Adaptive leaders need to raise up, talk about, and resolve conflicts about differences in power and privilege. We worked with one network where there was significant distrust between DC beltway organizations and grassroots groups. To overcome this distrust, the network needed to talk about how queer POC groups have not had a seat at the table or access to resources compared to the mainstream groups. They also had to talk about what types of power were important, and specifically how to balance decision-making among groups with financial resources and groups without.

“Good movements force leadership to re-evaluate new perspectives, consider fresh ideas, and challenge old ways. We have to fight – this is the messy part of it. The very innovation that starts well and gets established can get in the way. Upheaval is good.”

Network Leadership Innovation Lab Participant


Trust cannot be developed solely through systems, structures, and processes particularly in emergent, complex situations. Trust needs to be grounded in people’s behaviors and consistent, predictable actions. 

Research has shown that trust requires that people can predict what leaders will do. If you say you are going to come at 9 and you always show up at 10 am, I can trust that you will be an hour late. In addition to predictability, it helps to have dependability to do the right thing. If leaders say they value work-life balance and follow-up with staff to manage their workloads and make sure people are using vacations, this builds trust that you will be true to your word. If leaders tell one person over and over that they can advance a campaign and then second-guess all of that person’s decisions and apply additional criteria at the last minute that they need to meet before proceeding, this lack of consistency can destroy trust.

Beyond predictability and dependability, reliability increases with clarity about roles and decision-making. This is particularly important for leaders on the adaptive side of the spectrum where there can be double work, butting heads, or things falling through the cracks when multiple people play similar roles or are involved in decisions. But all along the spectrum, clarity helps leaders (and followers) hold each other accountable to their responsibilities.

Finally, reliability requires capability. People need the skills and resources to follow-through and be successful. On the directive side of the leadership spectrum, this is often done by hiring high-performing staff. On the adaptive side of the leadership spectrum, this is also done through coaching people to build their capability. Coaching has the secondary benefit of supporting transparent communications. Coaching can be a vulnerable place to challenge assumptions and express doubts and weaknesses.  It is a powerful trust-builder to help people to overcome these obstacles. 

When I was beginning to work with him, I was a little bit afraid of public speaking, and he threw me in front of two thousand members. I was like, ‘You really are insane. You want me to speak? I have not rehearsed a speech.’ He was like, ‘You have it in you. It’s in your heart.’ Then he threw me the microphone, and therefore I had no choice. What did I do? I spoke, and I spoke from my heart. That’s when I discovered that I could do this. I would not have found out if Gustavo didn’t throw me that microphone.

Staff member, CASA de Maryland


While respect has different meanings to different people, there are two specific ways that respect underlies trust along the leadership spectrum:  First, leaders garner more respect if they have high integrity (that is, their values are aligned with their actions), they are willing to address rather than avoid conflict, and have a track record of success. Second, and more importantly, trust is highest when mutual respect is shared among leaders and between leaders and followers. This happens when each person understands other people in a network or an organization enough to modify what they do to maximize everyone’s preferences and needs. It is much more common on the adaptive side of the leadership spectrum when there is low ego, and it is only possible when there is strong transparent communication. It also helps — but isn’t necessary in terms of respect — to have a common set of values and shared sense of purpose.

Imagine your strongest partnership where you felt that you could count on each other, you felt an energetic or synergistic connection, you knew you had each other’s back, and the impact you had together was more powerful than you dreamed possible. This is the highest level of trust. We’ve seen it emerge in movement networks and organizations that lean towards the adaptive side of the leadership spectrum. We’ve also seen it among teams within organizations that lean towards the directive side of the leadership spectrum.

“Rather than focusing on problem solving, or on leaders, or on structure, successful movement networks create a shared culture and mindset among their leaders and do two things very well: build trust and embrace change. ”

Mark Leach, Creating Culture: Promising Practices of Movement Network Leaders 

This series builds on case stories developed early on in our Network Leadership Innovation Lab, our learning during the Lab, our work with clients and previous thinking on shared and adaptive leadership (“Doing More with More” by Mike Allison and MAG Senior Consultants Susan Misra and Elissa Sloan Perry and previous writing on leadership by Elissa Sloan Perry). Explore more learning from the lab on our publications page

Note: Some of the ideas here were previously written about herehere, and here by Elissa Sloan Perry for ArtsFwd, an initiative of EMCArts. 

Banner photo credit: Natasha Winegar

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

For security, use of Google's reCAPTCHA service is required which is subject to the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

Recent Posts