The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer is a fascinating read on the ever-widening gap between leadership and trust. In the 21 years since the report has been published, one theme remains true. People are trusting institutions less and less, which has a flow-on effect on the leaders of those institutions.

The one chart that tells all shows a significant decline in the trust of societal leaders across every sector – government, religion, journalism, and CEOs. Yes, we are more likely to trust leaders that are local and familiar but even these numbers are heading in the wrong direction.

Social leaders - Markd Global

Blaming it on the pandemic

We know the pandemic and its aftermath is one of the driving forces behind this result. But the pandemic can not be blamed for everything. What the pandemic did do is expose the real and unaddressed issues facing our planet such as climate change, political instability, systemic racism, job insecurity, misinformation, and inequality. And so the list goes on.

If trust is the currency of our time leading to many desirable outcomes such as better societies, new or more loyal customers, engaged employees, better shareholder returns, improved workplace culture, what happens if we don’t trust the people who lead us?

We can only think the current crisis of leadership will turn to chaos. This might sound dramatic, but look at what happened in the U.S. The world watched in awe as the most powerful nation on earth turned on itself as a result of divisive leadership. It was concerning from afar but as you can imagine, violent and catastrophic up close.

But all is not lost.

Business as the new hope

The report did offer a glimmer of hope, especially for business leaders. Of all institutions, business achieved the highest level of trust at 61%. Globally it is seen as the most competent and ethical of all institutions.

Business becomes only trusted institution - Markd Global

It seems as people lose faith in government, they look to business to fill the void. 86% of respondents agreed that they want CEOs to lead with a visible and public voice on their broader societal concerns.

CEOS-Must-lead-on-societal - Markd Global

Bringing our focus down under

According to this year’s results, Australia’s institutional trust is at an all-time high. Government has had the biggest increase, but business remains the most trusted institution at 63%.

Even more revealing is that My Employer CEO is the second most trusted societal leader after scientists and people in my community who drew a tie. In line with the global data, Australians are looking to their CEOs and senior leaders to lead in enacting change. And what an incredible opportunity for Australian business leaders to step into an expanded remit and lead the world on building trust.

It’s ours to lose the Australian report concludes.

Australia-has-a record-trust-increase - Markd Global

Business leaders as the crusaders of trust

In many ways, it is a brand new world and CEOs are our hope for a better future.

All the signs are if CEOs do this well, it should have enormous benefits. Consumers and employees are citizens, after all, that will vote with their words and their wallets. The data indicates strongly that they don’t want to hear an institutional voice but a human one who cares and empathises when everything feels so uncertain.

But how do CEOs and business leaders navigate this new remit to deliver on profits and societal concerns?

Firstly by accepting that there is a new remit.

CEOs have to buy into acting on a broader set of concerns for the good of their company and society. Stepping outside the walls of their institutions to have a say on topics that are keeping everyone up at night may not suit every leader. But if they choose to then CEOs should be assisted with a new leadership and communication framework.

Discover their own sense of purpose.

Personal purpose linked to company purpose is a new concept for many business leaders. However, in our experience, it is the best place for CEOs to give expression to what they stand for and believe in – personally and corporately. Talking from a position of purpose is what gives every leader the courage to propel themselves forward to make their mark on the world.

Buy into trust, measure, and own it.

We all know business success comes from measuring what you want more of. Historically, this has been about earning profits but moving forward every CEO must make themselves accountable for restoring trust. And trust doesn’t have to be a generic measure but can be unique to each organisation. One company we know decided to measure ROK – Return on Kindness – to build trust.

Lead in forging partnerships.

The expectation for CEOs to step in and help solve societal problems is a fair challenge. However, business leaders can not do it alone and neither should they try. Partnership and collaboration with other institutions be it government, NGOs, and media based on a common vision and aligned goals is surely the way forward. It is probably the only way forward. Either way, the heightened expectation means CEOs have to lead on this front as well.

If you are a CEO or leader that wants to develop a new leadership and communication framework to lead in a brand new world, say

Click here to read/ download the Global 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Click here to read/ download the Australian 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Sibon Schouten - Markd Global

Sibon Schouten

CEO and Founder Markd Global