Nurturing the Roots of Trust: 2 Practical Methods to Strengthen Integrity

Trust is like a forest, requiring years of nourishment and care to produce its benefits, but vulnerable to careless acts. Integrity forms the roots of trust, and can be built with these practical activities.

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“Only you can prevent forest fires!” Smokey Bear’s wise counsel stands as one of the most successful public service campaigns in US history. From the time the campaign started in 1944 (the first year featuring the Disney figure Bambi), forest acreage lost due to fires declined from 22 million to 6.5 million annually. Smokey became a cultural icon, emphasizing individual responsibility for protecting natural resources. Smokey’s advice can easily apply to trust—“Only you can prevent burning down trust!” Trust is like a forest, taking committed effort and time to grow and yield fruits…but vulnerable to even one careless match. Fortunately, even fire-ravaged forests can be regrown, just as trust can be re-established, but it is much better to avoid destructive actions. Burning down trust is preventable, and building trust is achievable, through individual responsibility and action. Previously, I introduced Stephen M. R. Covey’s concept of trust as a tree, rooted in character components of integrity and intent, with competence producing trust through capability and results. In this article we’ll explore the roots, with two practical ways to strengthen our integrity.

Tree illustration based on Stephen M. R. Covey’s Speed of Trust


The word integrity comes from a Latin root meaning “whole” or “complete.” When we speak of the “integrity” of a ship, we mean that it is seaworthy, that its structure is uncorrupted, complete and without leaks…it is exactly as it needs to be to function as a ship. When we speak of the “integrity” of a person, we often equate it with being honest; but integrity in the sense of being complete or whole is a bigger concept than just honesty. Just like we depend on the integrity of a ship to keep us afloat, we depend on the integrity of others to be who they say they are. It includes the idea that a person always speaks and acts consistently with their values. In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey’s father, Stephen R. Covey, said that “Integrity…is simply this: you treat everyone by the same set of principles,” and this includes applying the same set of principles to yourself.

What NOT to do


  • Double standards for you and your workers
  • Inconsistent treatment based on status
  • Picking favorites

What are ways that leaders erode their integrity? It’s easy, as one rises in an organization, to think it’s time to take advantage of the privileges of being the boss, and to use a double standard for direct reports. A boss might think it’s a privilege to come in later to work, or take longer lunch breaks, or to be more “flexible” on deadlines, for example, while being strict on direct reports. Another area might be inconsistency between treatment of different people depending on their relative status, perhaps being polite to higher ranking people, but rude with others. We can estimate people’s integrity by observing how differently they treat others who can’t bring them immediate advantage versus those who can. Another killer of integrity is showing favoritism to a select group of people. I’ve been in several flying squadrons with an “in” clique—squadron members who shared social ties or appeared to have an inside track to the boss’s office that others didn’t enjoy. It appeared to many squadron members that the leader inconsistently treated “in” and “out” groups. When actions are disconnected from expressed principles, such as fairness, integrity is broken. But there are concrete measures that we can take to maintain our integrity.

Showing favoritism destroys the integrity between principle and action.                       Source

2 Practical Ways to Build Integrity

1. Articulate Your Principles

Because integrity includes acting consistently in accordance with our values, the first step should be to clearly define our principles. We all have beliefs and values that guide our daily behavior, whether we articulate them or not. An easy way to identify our values is to take an honest look at how we spend our time. Do we choose binging on Netflix series over cleaning the dinner dishes or improving some skill? Do we flip through our mobile phone news feeds during meetings rather than contributing to the team? Our underlying values heavily influence even the most mundane daily behaviors; therefore, it benefits us greatly to carefully identify those values. Good character starts with careful self-examination—our beliefs, values, and behaviors—both as they currently are and as we would like them to be.

If a biographer were to record your legacy in just one paragraph, what would she write? What characteristics and principles of behavior would you like to be remembered for by others? In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Covey uses a technique when discussing the second habit, “Begin with the end in mind,” by having the reader imagine his or her own funeral, and visualizing what family, friends, co-workers, and others would say in a eulogy.  The point is to use this perspective– examining your life as if you were an observer from the outside–to help you construct your principles for personal life and work. Many of us work for companies that articulate their values in mission and value statements, posted on their websites and around worksites. How many of us have taken the time to do the same for our own personal life?

Companies like Chevron display their values publicly…have you articulated your own personal values?  Source

Activity: Write your own Guiding Principles for Personal Life

What to Do: List and describe the fundamental principles you want to use to guide your day-to-day actions.

Tips on How to Do It:

  1. Consider what people will remember about you after you have passed on.
    1. What character traits would you like to be known for?
    2. What contribution to your family, friends, and society do you want to be known for?
    3. What significant achievement would you like to be known for?
  2. This is not a goal statement, but a list of principles for you to live by in order to fulfill your purpose and achieve your goals.
  3. You can use inspirational quotes, sayings, or spiritual sources.
  4. Make it personal with specific principles that will guide your behavior.
  5. Use an active verb.


The following is an example of my Life Purpose Statement with my Principles.


We should review our principles frequently. To be able to “walk your talk,” we need to have our values at the “top of our minds.” Principles are what we desire to be…not necessarily what we have already achieved. We must not be discouraged when we don’t live up to the principles constantly—no one has perfect integrity and congruity between what they want to be and what they are. We can, however, consistently remind ourselves of our values and practice staying committed to them.

2. Practice Making Commitments to Oneself and Keeping Them

“The only thing humans have that everybody is born with is the ability to keep their word or not keep their word.” – Former SEAL Thom Shea. SEAL training, like the exhausting team boat-carrying exercise pictured, gives many opportunities to commit to one’s word. Source

In one of the physically and mentally toughest training programs in the world, US Navy SEALs are given numerous opportunities to make a commitment and stick to it. Former Navy SEAL Thom Shea, now head of a leadership training organization Adamantine Alliance, says, “The only thing humans have that everybody is born with is the ability to keep their word or not keep their word.”[1]  By making a commitment to ourselves, and keeping it, we build our own confidence and self-trust; if we can’t trust ourselves, it is very difficult to expect others to trust us. Shea gives a small assignment to his high performance executive and athlete clients to drive home this point: he challenges them to do 5 squats, 5 pushups, and 5 sit-ups right before going to bed and as soon as getting up in the morning, for seven days straight. This little exercise obviously isn’t about getting in shape…no one will get a six-pack, SEAL body with that regimen…but it’s a mental self-discipline tool that works the self-will like a muscle that grows stronger by practice. (By the way, of the approximately 150 people to whom he’s given this assignment, only eleven have been able to do it perfectly).

Shea summarizes the US Navy SEAL culture in two basic principles: Honor Your Word and Don’t Quit. Making a commitment to oneself and following through with it brings together our own words and actions, giving us more completeness, or wholeness–Integrity. Stephen M. R. Covey, in his book The Speed of Trust, makes four good points to be successful in this tactic of building integrity through making self-commitments.

4 Tips for Making Self-commitments

  1. First, he warns against making too many self-commitments. We may set up many goals in our lives, but a real commitment is more serious than a goal, and should be carefully considered before making. Choose some commitments that are very important to you, or that help you practice self-discipline, such as Shea’s exercise commitment mentioned above, and concentrate on following through.
  2. Second, give self-commitments the same weight as commitments that you give to others. Don’t think that you can blow off a commitment just because no one else is making you accountable for it. Otherwise, you won’t gain the trust in yourself.
  3. Third, don’t commit to something impulsively or in the spur of the moment. We may overdo something, such as eating a big meal, and impetuously say “I’m NEVER going to do that again,” when we know that it’s not all that reasonable to make such a commitment. Save commitments for the big, important stuff.
  4. Fourth, when commitments become hard to keep, which most inevitably will, change your behavior to honor the commitment, rather than lowering values to match the behavior.

It takes time and effort to compose our own life principle statement, and self-commitments are not that easy to make and keep. We need to exercise the character traits of humility to accept failures and courage to keep going forward. But the reward in the end is increased personal integrity, which increases self-trust, which increases trust with others. By following these two practices, we protect that precious forest of trust…remember, only you can prevent forest fires!

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

[1] Thom Shea, interview with Richard Rierson, Dose of Leadership podcast, 24 February 2017.

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