American submarine leaving naval base in San Diego harbor, CA

Trust But Verify

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership


I think it was Ronald Reagan who popularized this Russian saying, Trust But Verify. For me, in the leadership arena, this has a special meaning. Let’s start with trust. My definition of trust is:

Trust means I believe that you authentically have my best interest at heart, not just your own.
David Kinnear, BSEE, MBA, BCC, CVDC

We can expand that to be the team’s or the company’s or the organization’s best interest as well. This definition recognizes


that you of course also have your own interest at heart, and you put others first. It means being a team player. The attitude is, “I don’t really care who gets credit as long as the team wins.” It’s more important that I find out how to serve you than it is to reach my own goal at your expense.


A quick on-line search turned up this definition of Verify:

To: make sure or demonstrate that (something) is true, accurate, or justified. “his conclusions have been verified by later experiments”
Synonyms: substantiate, confirm, prove, corroborate, back up, bear out, justify, support, uphold, attest to, testify to, validate, authenticate, endorse, certify “the evidence verifies my claim”

To verify is not to imply that YOU or I do the work or tell someone how to do the work. I believe it means that as a leader, my job is to ask the right questions when you tell me what you intend to do, have been doing or have already done. Those questions are not phrased in such a way as to imply incorrect results or process. Instead, the questions are meant for both of us to verify that we are on the right track.  Verify means that someone has done or is going to do the work, and someone else is going to verify that work is completed as intended.

Intent Based Leadership (IBL)

Our U.S. Military is showing us the way when it comes to enlightened leadership. IBL is a program that focuses on developing leaders in our organization. It comes from the work of L. David Marquet, retired Navy, commander of the U.S.S. Santa Fe, Nuclear Fast Attack Submarine (hence the image of a U.S. Submarine leaving San Diego harbor – NOT the Santa Fe). Allow me to piece this all together.

Trust has nothing to do with competency, dependability or credibility. It has only to do with believing that a person has the organization’s best interest at heart. That is, their actions will always be what they believe will move our organization forward. Or, in the case of individuals, their actions will always be what they perceive are in the other person’s best interest.

Likewise, verify has nothing to do with someone micromanaging or actually doing the work of another employee for reasons of expediency. Instead, verify means simply to ask the right questions that allow both parties (or the full team) to understand that we have made or are making the right decisions to achieve the clearly stated goals. In some cases, physical inspection of the work may be used to verify (as in quality control, root cause analysis, nuclear disarmament, etc.)


Trust but verify and IBL go hand-in-hand. The hard work of developing leaders requires that the leaders give control to others, yet verify that things are still on track. This is difficult work because our tendencies are to play to our strengths. Often that means diving into the details because we got to our leadership positions by doing the job well and earning a promotion. But as Marshall Goldsmith declared, “What got you here won’t get you there.” To move to the next level of leadership we must develop other leaders. To develop other leaders, we must give control away. In order to give control away, leaders have to be sure that everyone is crystal clear on values and vision. The employee must have technical competence. And all of this must be based on trust.