Leadership and Ethos: The Power of Building Trust


Leaders provide a vision, empower action, and motivate change, but to do so most effectively, they need followers to trust them and trust each other (Scandura 49). Leaders can minimize conflict among their followers by acting as a model of selflessness—sacrificing their own needs for those of their followers to create a culture of consideration that the community can spread through imitation. A leader’s selflessness, as a form of sacrifice, functions as a rhetorical appeal of ethos, engendering trust in the leader’s character and the larger group, and thus facilitating greater cooperation toward the leader’s vision.

One of the greatest skills may be to inspire others. I have had leaders in my life whom I imitated and who inspired me to do more than I thought possible. What I sacrificed to achieve goals I did not set! And yet I don’t regret it; I feel proud. Why make such sacrifices for leaders? And what do mimetic desire and sacrifice have to do with leadership, rhetoric and trust?

This web-based exploration will examine these questions by seeing how the Greek orators of the Classical era describe leaders in education in terms of imitation and trust; and investigating how contemporary leadership concepts relate to rhetoric and sacrifice.

While there are numerous leadership styles, for the purpose of this discussion, I will focus primarily on transformational leadership, as these leaders inspire followers by appealing to ethics and high moral standards (Northouse 187). It is also worth noting that leaders are not necessarily authority figures, but any individuals—teachers, classmates, doctors, clergy, politicians, managers—who influence followers as they work together toward a shared goal (Northouse 5). Transformational leaders need to utilize ethos and model desired behaviors because to operate unethically would be to lose one’s moral standpoint, and thus one’s credibility and influence. 

Greek Rhetoricians on Leadership

Ethos and Trust

The ancient Greeks recognized that trust is a critical component to an orator's success; speakers need credibility, or ethos, in order to persuade others. Aristotle describes ethos as an ability “to understand human character and goodness in their various forms,” and notes that for a rhetorician, “his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses” (182). How do the Greeks talk about trust and credibility in rhetoric, and how do they want their leaders to demonstrate trustworthiness?

Instruction and Imitation

Several of the Greek rhetoricians expound the importance of character in teachers, as students will follow and imitate desired behaviors.

Isocrates, in "Against the Sophists," recognizes the power of imitation, and suggests that teachers not only explain what can be explained, but also be mindful about modeling desired behaviors because students will “pattern after” the teacher (74).  

The rhetorician Quintilian also suggests that instructors maintain high standards for others' behavior (366). He highlights the power and importance of a teacher providing positive moral examples to imitate: "Let him neither have vices in himself, nor tolerate them in others" (366). Quintilian would also have students read only the great authors and read them from an early age (375).  This approach emphasizes modeling greatness, demonstrating the power of mimesis in building character and the importance of role models who live by principles of morality.

Cicero as well notes the importance of teachers to demonstrate the concepts they teach; he writes, “Let this then be my first counsel, that we show the student whom to copy, and to copy in such a way as to strive with all possible care to attain the most excellent qualities of his model” (320).

These writers generally recognize the importance of trustworthy leaders who exemplify a positive vision for followers to enact through imitation. But what about when imitation goes wrong? When one cannot attain what someone else has? Mimetic desire can lead to positive learning, but it can also lead to conflict.

Emergent Leadership, Desire, and Jealousy

Cicero makes the point that “gifted individuals can dispense with models” (321). As these “gifted” individuals become leaders in their own right—growing and developing their own visions, setting new examples—conflict may arise. Cicero understands this, and underscores the importance of leaders’ ethos in diffusing conflict (333). He notes that “the emotion of jealousy is by far the fiercest of all” and it can arise when someone’s equals rise into leadership positions—especially when these leaders “conduct themselves insufferably” (333). To avoid followers’ jealousy, leaders need to behave responsibly, build credibility, and connect with followers personally. 

Cicero suggests that “to quench jealousy,” one can reframe the situation by considering the work that went into the other’s success so that “what was supposed to be outstanding prosperity shall be seen to be thoroughly blended with labor and sorrow” (334). Cicero recognizes that jealousy is “remarkably general and widespread” and that one can calm others’ jealous emotions by using ethos to appeal to a sense of justice and fairness, considering another’s hard work rather than one’s own lack, and thereby helping to resolve conflict in a community (334).

So here we have seen leadership in several forms:

  • the teachers who set positive examples

  • the students who see the examples but go their own way, with their own visions

  • and leaders who dissipate conflict with ethos, focusing on understanding and compassion


Leadership: Ethos and Trust

Safety and Vulnerability

A popular definition of trust in the literature of organizational studies is “a willingness to be vulnerable” (Mayer 726).  When trust is broken, this vulnerability is exploited to the detriment of the relationship. Terri Scandura writes that leaders who act without integrity may find that trust is “difficult (if not impossible) to repair” (38). When conditions of trust exist, on the other hand, with leaders demonstrating integrity, “ethics has a cascading effect throughout the organization” (Scandura 45).  Clearly, integrity and trust play major roles in leaders’ credibility and influence.

Amy Edmondson writes about psychological safety in teams, and notes that “people tend to act in ways that inhibit learning when they face the potential for threat or embarrassment” (352). If leaders can help minimize the threat of embarrassment by creating an environment of psychological safety, meaning that individuals feel “safe for interpersonal risk taking,” they will be better able to learn, and the team will perform better toward its goals (Edmondson 354).

Leadership expert Simon Sinek notes that communities and organizations tend to be highly productive when individuals feel safe among each other, as this builds the trust necessary for facing dangers external to the community (n. pag). Sinek gives an example of a military hero who risked his life in a firefight to bring wounded soldiers back to safety and who explained this behavior by stating, “he would have done it for me” (n. pag). This willingness to give one’s life based on trust of mutual of values shows that trust can power extraordinary action and cooperation.


Rivalry and Sacrifice

Trust and cooperation in teams is not necessarily easy to achieve or maintain. Literary theorist Rene Girard suggests that conflict in groups comes from “mimetic rivalry”—individuals wanting the same thing—and that this rivalry can escalate into repetitive cycles of violence which he calls “mimetic crises” (n. pag). Girard uses myths to show that early cultures resolved rivalries by transferring animosity onto a scapegoat who would be sacrificed by the community, restoring peace (n. pag). According to Girard, the victim would then be exalted as a god who saved them by bringing peace to the community; but the violence needs to be repeated as conflicts continue to arise (n. pag). Girard suggests this is the foundation of religion—the beginning of ritual sacrifice (n. pag). Girard argues that today, we can avoid similar violent cycles of scapegoating and sacrifice by practicing nonviolence and non-retaliation to stop mimetic crises from unfolding (n. pag).

Keith Grint writes about the sacred nature of leadership using Girard's theory as a framework, and determines that recent scholarship on distributive or shared leadership may ignore this sacredness and the fact that leadership requires a distance between leaders and followers, and acts of sacrifice and silencing. Grint notes that leaders may be the individuals performing the sacrifice as Girard sees it, or may be sacrificed themselves (99). Grint makes a valuable contribution to the discussion of leadership in terms of Girard's concept of mimetic rivalry and sacrifice, but a discussion of the nature of trust and method of building ethos is outside the scope of his article.

Transformational leaders may stop mimetic crises by appealing to ethos, by sacrificing their own well-being for others and for their cause, and by practicing nonviolence. Transformational leaders who meet these criteria include Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. These individuals demonstrated their goals and their ethos with nonviolence, calling on moral authority to achieve extraordinary change.


When transformational leaders risk their own well-being as they work toward a goal, they model a behavior for their followers to imitate: sacrificing themselves rather than victimizing a scapegoat.  While ancient cultures with archaic gods curated a peaceful community by sacrificing victims, leaders today can cultivate and maintain safety and trust in the community by becoming vulnerable themselves, resolving conflicts with appeals of ethos and modeling behaviors, as the Greeks recommended.

To create a culture of nonviolence and eliminate rivalry, leaders and followers need mutual trust. Trust and violence sit close together. For example, mutually assured destruction (MAD) exemplifies the risk of mimetic desire escalating into a crisis resulting in violence—and how trust keeps the violence at bay. In order to maintain this trust, we need trustworthy leaders, with ethos the community can model for greater cooperation in a conflict-ridden world.

Works Cited

Aristotle. "From Rhetoric." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 179-240. Print.

Cicero. "From De Oratore, Book II." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Trans. E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 320-335. Print.

Edmondson, Amy. “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams.” Administrative Science Quarterly 44.2 (1999): 350-383. SAGE Journals. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Girard, René. Interview by Robert Harrison. " René Girard on Ritual Sacrifice and the Scapegoat." Podcast. Entitled Opinions. Stanford University. 4 Oct. 2005. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <http://french-italian.stanford.edu/opinions/girard.html>

Grint, Keith. “The Sacred in Leadership: Separation, Sacrifice, and Silence.” Organization Studies 31.1 (2010): 89-107. JSTOR. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Isocrates. "Against the Sophists." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Trans. George Norlin. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 72-75. Print.

Mayer, Roger C., James H. Davis and F. David Schoorman. “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust.” The Academy of Management Review 20.3 1995: 709-734. JSTOR. Web. 29 Mar. 2016. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/258792>

Quintilian. "From Institutes of Oratory." The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. 2nd ed. Trans. John Selby Watson. Eds. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 364-428. Print.

Scandura, Terri A. "Leadership: Core Concepts." Essentials of Organizational Behavior: An Evidence-Based Approach. Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2016. 23-54. Print.

Sinek, Simon. "Why good leaders make you feel safe." TED. Mar. 2014. TED. Web. 14 Mar. 2016. <https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_safe?language=en>