Trust in Leadership. Some observations on the process of trust building in the German Bundestag and the German Cabinet

Dr Henrik Gast*


Interpersonal trust has a significant impact on the government in parliamentary democracies. On the basis of a qualitative survey this study discusses in detail how German chancellors are able to contribute to the trust building process within the cabinet, the coalition and the (parliamentary) party. Within the analysis various ways of trust building are differentiated. A typological classification shows that the personality of the individual head of government impacts on the trust building process.


The relationship between the executive and the legislative in parliamentary systems can be analysed from various angles. It has been examined to what extent governments are able to develop coherent policy-strategies and implement them successfully (Tils 2011) or whether heads of government are more or less powerful in relation to their cabinet ministers (Sebaldt, and Gast, 2010). Other studies concentrated on governments’ compositions and the mechanisms of coalition building (e. g. Müller and Strøm, 2000). Furthermore, the relationship between the cabinet and the civil service took centre stage in political science (e. g. Peters, Rhodes, and Wright, 2000).

This article takes a different perspective. It concentrates on the process of trust building within and between the government and the parliamentary majority. In times of crisis, it is even more necessary to analyse, how governments are able to solve conflicts and to ensure their parliamentary support. Overall, our assumption is that interpersonal trust makes these tasks easier and contributes to the stability of the government. Therefore, we ask how interpersonal trust evolves and how it can be maintained. The existing research supports our assumption: Trust does not just play a prominent role on the macro- or meso-level; in the same way, personal interactions are significantly influenced by the strength of interpersonal trust. Many works have referred to its positive effects (e. g. Neubauer and Rosemann, 2006: 125-131). Trust regularly contributes to a more open information culture and opens up new options of action as it allows for arrangements in which partners keep their promises. Since elaborate control systems can be dispensed with it, it further conserves personal resources (Bosetzky, 1976). At the same time, trust takes effect as a ‘social glue’ that promotes interpersonal integration (Seifert, 2001: 303). It provides a better group atmosphere because the members feel secure acting in a protected environment. Social conflicts will – one suspects – be resolved more easily with mutual trust. Therefore, trust building should be considered as an essential part of contemporary research on parliaments. It is clear that we must reflect more strongly on the strategies of trust building within the executive. It would be highly beneficial to compare various Western European governments in order to assess the general and specific processes of trust building. For reasons of limited capacities we start with a case study on Germany. Interpersonal trust seems more important in fragmented political systems due to its special necessity to integrate a wide set of groups. Representing a political system of strong diffusion of power caused by federalism, decentralized parties and coalition government, it seems promising to begin the analysis with the trust building processes in Germany. To narrow down the area under investigation this study specifically calls attention to the role of the head of government. In particular, the leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998) was considered to be based on interpersonal trust. However, how heads of government create a trusting atmosphere – for example within the cabinet – is still a blind spot in the extensive field of leadership research, and has not yet been sufficiently theoretically developed. Equally, which heads of government are most likely to win a high degree of interpersonal trust is a subject that has not been analysed adequately. Therefore, this article aims to differentiate between personality types and their capacities to develop interpersonal. It needs to be explored whether the results can be transferred to other countries, e.g. to Ireland. We believe that personality types presented in the second half of this study are broad enough to describe and classify heads of government from other Western European countries.

Definitional approach from a scientific perspective

Because the phenomenon of ‘trust’ is complex, and frequently remains hazy, we must first discuss how it can be defined (for an overview see Burke et al., 2007: 607-607). Basically, one has to distinguish between different types of trust – the generalized trust, the trust in institutions and the trust between people (see (Newton, 2007: 344-345). The first type of trust, the generalized, refers to the question of whether one can trust people within a country or a larger group, even if no specific information about their personalities is available. The trust in institutions applies to trust one puts in rules, norms, procedures and therefore in social roles or institutions. Generally, every Chancellor is expected to receive trust to a certain extent as a consequence of his role, regardless of his personality. Finally, trust can be based on direct interaction in personal relationships. Although the different dimensions are hard to differentiate empirically, this essay deals primarily with the latter dimension. It analyses the personal trust between the Chancellor and his or her team mates. It is plausible to consider this form of trust as a particular ‘relationship quality’ (Eberl, 2004: col. 1597) or as a ‘hopeful attitude despite the risk of uncertainty’ (Bierhoff, 1995: col. 2149). In a trusting environment, individuals assume that those with whom they interact will not exploit them in uncertain situations, but will act with solidarity (Klaus, 2002: 120). In a similar manner, Denise M. Rousseau and colleagues define 'trust' as a ‘psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behaviour of another’ (Rousseau et al., 1998: 395). Trusting a person means – according to Bernd Lahno – seeing that person in a ‘very special light’ (Lahno, 2002: 209). A sympathetic attitude and a sense of connectedness are crucial. The highly controversial question of how trust should be defined cannot be answered and decided ultimately. Within this enquiry, trust is conceptualized with the meaning of a working definition as ‘a psychological state held by the follower involving confident positive expectations about the behaviour and intentions of the leader, as they relate to the follower’ (Dirks, 2006: 15). Furthermore, it is of particular importance that trust is relevant only in risky circumstances. If the subjects knew with certainty the consequences of their interaction in advance, interpersonal trust would not be required. Providing basic information, these remarks outline the phenomenon of trust more clearly. However, the question remains at issue how trust is built from the perspective of the members of parliament and cabinet members.

The emergence of a precarious commodity: how is trust developed?

The field of interdisciplinary research dealing with the genesis of trust is rather heterogeneous due to different approaches and methods (Koller, 1997). Following the theoretical perspective of interactionism, this study regards trust as an ‘interaction dynamic’ (Eberl, 2004: col. 1601) in which the leader, the follower (and the specific context of the situation) have a substantial impact on the trust building process. With regard to the follower, one should distinguish between the individual’s tendency to trust and the implicit trust theory (Schweer, 2008: 18-22). Since people differ according to their socialization and their experiences in life, it is likely that they develop different capabilities to trust. As Julian B. Rotter emphasized early, they vary markedly in the assumption that trusting relationships are possible and therefore perceive their environment differently (Rotter, 1971). One should assume that the interaction partners respond differently to the Chancellor’s trust building efforts. With regard to the second aspect, the implicit trust theory, trust will be created if the expectations – what does it mean to be trustworthy? – and the actual behaviour of the Chancellor are in accordance with one another. Following the terminology of Martin Schweer, we can define this state as a ‘trust-concordance’ (Schweer, 2008: 21). If the expectations conflict with the behaviour, we can describe it as a ‘trust-discordance’. Major contributions within the research field indicate that the trustee characteristics imply three aspects – the ability to solve specific task depending on the role, the ‘extent to which a trustee is believed to want to do good to the trustor, aside from an egocentric profit motive’ (benevolence) and the ‘perception that the trustee adheres to a set of principles that the trustor finds acceptable’ (integrity) (Mayer, Davis, and Schoorman, 1995: 718-719, original emphasis). Following up these results, political science should address the question which expectations of the members of the parliamentary majority shape the trust building process with regard to the executive-legislative relationship and within the executive.

Additionally, it is beyond any doubt that the leader has a decisive influence on the trust genesis also. Depending on his personality he will fulfil the expectations to a varying degree. This study concentrates on these two aspects of the trust genesis – the specific expectations of the members of the parliamentary majority and the personality types of the leader. The first part refers to the German context, the second part broadens the perspective and applies to heads of government in parliamentary systems more generally.

Method of empirical analysis

In order to answer the question, the relevant concepts and processes of trust must be empirically analysed (instructive is Schweer and Thies, 2003: 23-29). Since trust is a commodity which is constructed and constituted interactively the perceptions of the interaction partners are crucial. Within the framework of a broader study about political leadership, the author followed a qualitative approach: using an interview guide, the author surveyed a total of 24 individuals from various parties – six from the Christian Social Union (CSU), three from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), ten from the Social Democratic Party (SPD), three from the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and two from the Green Party (Gast, 2011: 39-50). The case selection was designed to incorporate various arenas, including the cabinet, parliamentary groups, coalitions and parties: seven interviewees were cabinet members; all were members of a German parliamentary group; nineteen even held parliamentary leadership positions. Overall, the interviews took 1560 minutes, at an average 65 minutes each. Mostly, they were held in the offices of the interviewees during the period of January to April 2009. The majority of interviews related to the leadership terms of Chancellors Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schroeder. Taking a balanced view, the sample was designed to include supporter and opponents of the Chancellors mentioned above. In this study, the sequences which will be primarily analysed are in reference to the following question:

In politics, it is often emphasized that mutual trust is necessary. What should a Chancellor do in order to be trustworthy? What mustn’t he do?

The interviews were carefully interpreted on a whole intending to explore dominant leitmotifs. Subsequently, the sequences were analysed with the perspective of trust building organizing different perceptions of the interviewees and were finally put in a systematic order. As is common for a qualitative research design, the sample cannot claim any statistical representativeness, but points out typical patterns of trust building, which are highly important in the political process.

Empirical Results: Trust Building within the Parliamentary Majority

Analysis of the interviews shows that different processes can be identified, which relate to very different areas of interaction (see Gast, 2011: 182-198).

Trust through accumulated knowledge: the historicity of the relationship

Firstly, one restriction emerged from the interviews: Normally, trust in social relationships is not established ex abrupto, but gradually. The prior history of the political team mates is of prime importance for the trust building process. One member of parliament emphasizes this circumstance:

All these things take time to develop, after all. It's almost like in normal life. One starts by trusting one's family. One knows them and can generally rely on them, just because of the family links. In politics, it's only gradually that one gains people's trust, that they say: ‘One can rely on him’ (Interview No. 9, Parliamentary State Secretary, CSU).

Coming to power, it makes the cooperation much easier if the Chancellor and most individuals in a government majority have known each other for a long time, and hence they are able to assess each other. Before individuals are willing to undertake high-risk actions with serious consequences voluntarily, smaller steps are usually taken to lead up to this (Luhmann, 2000: 56). Trust is most likely to be precarious at the beginning of coalition governments when the new coalition partners are not yet familiar with each other and at first only dare to make small steps into the open, in order to limit the risk of being disappointed.

Trust through similar socialization

In politics, as elsewhere, trusting relationships essentially tend to be formed with people whose lifestyle or path through life is similar to one’s own (Newton, 2007: 348). Knowledge of a similar background or socialization reduces uncertainty and creates emotional closeness. Concerning the question of how trust is established a federal minister belonging to the CSU stresses this point in relation to Chancellor Helmut Kohl:

I knew where he came from: He was not fed with a silver spoon and he did not decide things on the golf course, but he knew the life of ordinary men on the street. He knew what folk were like. [...] And well, I have seen Kohl every week. So far he was always credible to me (Interview No. 21).

The interviewee introduced himself as a person very close to the perceived personality of Kohl. In the beginning he presented himself as not ‘programmatic’ but ‘pragmatic’, who does not define things theoretically but gives examples and who had regularly worked ‘from 7am until 10pm in the night’. Both sequences show the motives of ‘having his feet firmly on the ground’ and ‘not being detached from the world’ which indicate sympathy and emotional closeness. Trust kindled in this way can be further strengthened through personal contact, but it can certainly also be generated at a distance if the Chancellor demonstrates himself to be someone who belongs to the respective party or electoral base (Bailey, 1988: 85-86).

Trust through reliability, fairness and honesty

Almost no concept of trust can dispense with these categories, which relate closely to personal trust (Mayer, Davis and Schoorman, 1995: 719-720). The interviewees pointed out that honesty and reliability play a prominent role: ‘One gains trust when one stands by what one said and does not constantly see-saw, but draws a continuous line and lives up to one’s promises’ (Interview No. 23, MP, CSU). Reliability essentially emerges when promises and announcements are kept, which is of particular importance in the coalition arena. An MP of the Green Party underlined the significance of this norm – in relation to the coalition of the SPD and the Green Party (1998 to 2005) – while giving an example of a situation where expectations were broken:

I always had the feeling that the Social Democrats thought concerning political projects: We do it! And we’ll get along with the Greens anyway – if necessary through tricking them out of the game! Thus, arrogance on the one side! And on the other side they responded to proposals of the Green Party initially: ‘Yes, actually a very good idea!’ However, then they discovered that there were reservations within their own party. And the next day they refused to have anything to do with it. This is very difficult! This attitude troubles a trusting relationship enormously. It’s much better if it’s clear: We will not cooperate because ... frankly speaking, it is simply not possible because – instead of raising hope! (Interview No. 16)

It is beneficial for lasting cooperation if a chancellor clearly and openly communicates where he is prepared to make concessions, and where he is not. This will lead to the mutual feeling of reliability in the long term. The chancellor will appear trustworthy when he acts fairly and with integrity (Bierhoff, 1995: col. 2151-2152). From the perspective of a cabinet minister of the SDP, these behavioural norms are significant in the cabinet as well:

The decisive question is really what one says about people behind their backs. People get to hear about it. So long as one doesn’t criticize anyone behind his back and doesn’t talk differently to him to his face, one satisfies a basic precondition for trust (Interview No. 17).

The quotation of an MP of the CSU underscores this expectation: ‘Of course, trust is somehow related to the honesty of the spoken word’ (Interview No. 9). Confidentiality – the ability to keep secrets to oneself – is recognized by a Parliamentary State Secretary of the CSU as an essential prerequisite to mutual trust:

Kohl had a reputation – rightly in my opinion – that you could trust him personally. Keep in mind that there is a community in the Cabinet, there are friends and enemies. Second, [he had a reputation] that he is relatively discreet. Great politicians are generally not, you should know. [...] They often give away secrets immediately. [...] But Kohl did not! (Interview No. 1)

Trust through ‘taking each other seriously’

In the interviews, it emerged that trust requires a feeling of mutual esteem. To gain a majority in his own party, parliamentary group, in a coalition and in the cabinet, the chancellor must deal with the arguments of political team-mates with ‘great sensitivity’ (Interview No. 14, Parliamentary State Secretary, CDU). If he holds them in a considerable respect, they more easily develop confidence in the positive intentions of the chancellor. Asked what a chancellor should do in order to build up trust, a federal minister belonging to the SPD, answered:

He must have convincing political goals and objectives. He must have convincing arguments. He must be able to analyze clearly, what has changed and he must give the people he interacts with the feeling […] that he takes them seriously and values them. However, esteem can exist even in significant disagreement. Having argued vehemently I sometimes said: ‘Please recognize out of it that I take you seriously. If I didn’t, I would have made some general remarks and that would have been the end of it’ (Interview No. 8).

With regard to parliamentary arenas, esteem means above all that the chancellor involves key individuals at an early opportunity, and thus shows that their arguments are important to him. ‘One gains trust if one incorporates the responsible decision-making bodies in the political process and tries to communicate openly’ (Interview No. 15, MP, SPD).

Trust through cultivating contacts and care

In addition, a major expectation concerning trustworthiness relates to the behaviour of cultivating contacts, being friendly and supporting the team-mates. In order to achieve a deeper human relationship, a premier must show personal interest above and beyond formal obligations.

It plays a decisive role whether the chancellor praises one, whether he gives them a feeling of being important. These little human weaknesses are important – even if it is only that he knows the first name or a specific family history, just to show him, I am interested in you. Everybody likes this (Interview No. 4).

When asked how a Chancellor could build trust a Parliamentary State Secretary (CSU) answered: ‘For example, by taking care of the personal matters of the people. [...] Kohl knew the family background of nearly everyone’ (Interview No. 1). In particular, the interviewees who talked about Kohl’s leadership style spoke remarkably often of how much he made them feel that he took them seriously, followed their careers and was concerned about them: ‘This is important! One would like to have the feeling that he is interested in one’s life. Kohl was wonderful in this respect!’ (Interview No. 1, Parliamentary State Secretary, CSU). Other chancellors have applied a similar mechanism of trust building:

Mrs Merkel inspires confidence because she cultivates private contacts. It might be by a text or sometimes a chat. Or when she said to me: ‘You had your birthday recently, didn't you?’ That is the sort of thing that creates trust. [It becomes clear]: Aha, she takes an interest even in little things, she knows it was my birthday. Of course, that creates a bond (Interview No. 23, MP, CSU).

Trust through role-specific competence

Furthermore, the interviewees associated trust with carrying out a role successfully. It is sufficient for trust-givers to know that they are in ‘good hands’ because they are convinced of the premier’s competence in decision-making and actions. A federal minister (CDU) perceives trust in this manner:

The phrase ‘to trust someone’ implies that someone is capable of doing something; that he will meet the requirements in terms of moral, humanity and problem-solving. Both, personal and functional competence are part of it (Interview No. 3).

An MP of the SPD remarked, concerning Chancellor Angela Merkel:

In some areas, she had my full admiration due to her precise, detailed knowledge and what she was able to contribute during the discussions. This is certainly a factor to be taken into account that convinces others, as it demonstrates competence. And expertise is also a crucial point leading to trust (Interview No. 13).

Furthermore, trust emerges if the interaction partners assume that the chancellor will be successful in the elections.

Stages of cooperation and trust building

Not all of the processes listed above lead to equally strong levels of trust. To understand these differences, a stage model of trust building is illustrated below, following the considerations of Debra L. Shapiro and colleagues (Shapiro, Sheppard, and Cheraskin, 1992). Subsequently, it will be shown that heads of government achieve different levels of trust depending on their personality (see Table 1).

Table 1. Stages of Trust Building

Stage of cooperation and trust building

Strength of trust

Trust or cooperation building


Willingness to take risks

Stage 1:

Cooperation through calculation


Cooperation through self-interest

Public reputation as a guarantee of cooperation (self-interest)


Stage 2:

Trust through increased knowledge


Trust through accumulated knowledge

Trust through similar socialisation

Trust through reliability, fairness and honesty

Trust through ‘taking each other seriously’

Trust through role specific competence


Stage 3:

Trust through




Trust through cultivating contacts and care


Source: author’s illustration.

Which leaders achieve what level of trust: an outline

Interdisciplinary research on the subject of trust quickly discovered that trust building is dependent on a large number of factors. Trust evades, as it were, direct control by the individuals involved (see Nooteboom, 2002: 85). It is almost indisputable, however, that the chancellor has a prominent role in this process. The personality types that are most likely to create a high level of trust are discussed below. So far, despite extensive executive research in political science, there has been no debate on the question of how variables of ‘personality’ and ‘trust building’ are related. The typologies that concern premiers’ leadership styles mainly relate to the scope of political organization rights (Blondel, 1993: 8), institutional aspects of the political environment (Rose 1991: 19), or the incumbent’s general attitudes (Kavanagh, 1990: 247; Barber, 1977: 3-14) and only offer a few links. R. A. W. Rhodes (2006: 323) passionately criticised the lack of theories, models and typologies explaining the role of executives in parliamentary government. Thus, assumptions from the field of personality research will be used below; to be more precise, four textbook types will be developed, following the ‘DISC’ personality assessment model (dominance – influence – steadiness – conscientious) based on the work of psychologist William Moulton Marston (for the ‘DISC’ typology, see Ott, Wittmann, and Gay, 2006). Despite using the basic idea of the model, the terminology is changed slightly in order to adapt to the field of political science. A combination of the dimensions ‘reaction to environment’ (decisive or reserved) and ‘orientation’ (goal-oriented or people-oriented) produces four personality ideal types’:

It is argued that heads of government achieve different levels of trust with regard to the relationship to their political team-mates depending on their personality. The dominant doer tends to achieve the lowest one (stage 1), the reserved stabilizer stages 2–3, the affable team player stage 3, and the conscientious rationalist stage 2. These differences are caused by the general motives and needs shaping the personality. The subsequent section explains these patterns in detail. It should be noted that the historicity of the relationship and similarity of socialization contribute to trust building independently of the personality type of the individual chancellor. With regard to the leadership styles of heads of government we should not consider a classification exclusive to just one possible type. As leaders have complex personalities and behave differently depending on the situation, they will combine different types of leadership, a troublesome fact for political scientists. The question is, however, which patterns are characteristic of an office holder and occur most often. Obviously, the four types should only be considered ideals. I will analyse each type’s overall grasp of politics, the role that trust plays and the level of trust they achieve. For illustrative purposes, I will also make some comments on how to classify the last four German chancellors. The section does not conduct a comprehensive analysis concerning different chancellors however, but rather clarifies the general argument on the basis of some empirical evidence.

The conscientious rationalist (goal-oriented/reserved)

A pronounced goal orientation and a reserved manner in interpersonal behaviour is characteristic of the type of conscientious rationalist, who is primarily motivated by doing things right. Underlying his grasp of politics is the desire for objectively reasonable arguments to prevail. He mainly attempts to convince his political team-mates intellectually, whereby his whole self-projection is characterized by a certain sobriety. However, dealing mainly on the rational level does not imply that his leadership style is marked by a tendency to going it alone. His need to demonstrate independence and self-assertion is rather low compared with the dominant doer. With regard to trust building, it is to be expected that a rational leader will reach stage 2, as he is marked by predictability and feels bound by his own word. Due to his preference for rational debate, however, a leader of this type will lack the sense for the interpersonal aspects of political interaction. He has no pronounced sociability to make him sensitive to the needs of his interaction partners. As a rational premier will also consider professionalism to be a separation of professional and private life, he will open up to his interaction partners less easily (self-disclosure), so that it is sometimes difficult for others to understand what is going on inside his mind. Stage-3 trust is therefore unlikely to develop, as a rational leader finds interactions that are not necessary for objective decision-making to be tiresome. The trust that is placed in him is based on his professional competence. Limitations are to be expected with regard to personal-emotional trust building.

Concerning the last German chancellors, the leadership styles of Helmut Schmidt and Angela Merkel display some distinctive parts of the type ‘conscientious rationalist’. Schmidt put great emphasis on the in-depth analysis of any question and led the Cabinet meetings in a goal-oriented manner. From the perspective of some observers, his leadership style lacked to some extent interpersonal emotions and mutual esteem (Dönhoff, 1979: 18-19). His sober and strict Hanseatic manner did hold great appeal in public, but also led to many personal rejections, so that deep emotional trust going beyond reliability, predictability and competence (stage 2) was not typical of Schmidt. Although he also cultivated political friendships, these were not a salient feature of his leadership style. His trustworthiness was based primarily on his universally recognized expertise, and less on his extensive cultivation of relationships.

The affable team player (people-oriented/decisive)

Obviously, the affable team player attempts to find reasonable solutions to political issues as well. In contrast to the first type, he places high importance on consent in groups and interprets his role as more people-oriented than the conscientious rationalist. As his basic motive is to find acceptance, he seeks opportunities for interaction. He enjoys being centre stage, is talkative and maintains contact with a large number of people. Politics also takes place in the form of rational debate for the affable team player, however, he has a much keener sense of the atmospheric quality of relationships. As he seeks acceptance, the affable team player takes his interaction partners seriously and normally behaves in a reliable manner. Thanks to his extroverted, decisive manner, he finds it easy to create personal connections with people around him. He does not experience human relations as a burden, but as an essential part of his life. He attempts to reach his goals by cultivating contacts. For trust building, this implies that a premier of this kind is much more likely to inspire stage-3 trust from those people with whom he undertakes personal networking. This kind of premier considers his interaction partners by their human features instead of purely by their professional role, and tends to respond much more to their needs. Trust through cultivating contacts and care is expected to a high degree by an affable team player. This behaviour is partly caused by intrinsic motivation and partly by strategic motives. Having helped political team-mates with words and deeds, it is easier for a chancellor to become accepted and to achieve his aims.

Among the previous chancellors, Helmut Kohl’s leadership style clearly represented the characteristics of the affable team player. A journalist described him as follows:

Helmut Kohl is comfortable with groups, he likes people around him – ‘in order to feel good I do somewhat rely on human warmness’. He is not a solitary person. ‘I'm not programmed to behave like this’, he says, and therefore he has never had problems, ‘to team up with others. That helped me a lot in politics’ (Krause-Burger, 1984: 16).

As he was driven by a strong affiliation motive, the defining feature of his interaction style was that he enjoyed cultivating relationships. He built up networks with countless officials in his party and parliamentary group, and thereby gained personal access to them (Weinert, 2001). In the early years of his era, at least, he was able to give many individuals the feeling that he greatly valued their cooperation and was always available to listen to their concerns. The development of trust was also promoted by Kohl’s recognition of many opportunities to hold personal conversations – whether in his office or during parliamentary debates in the plenum.

That means: He [Kohl] had time for everybody whenever and however possible. […] This was one of his typical management tools, approaching people directly and having time for them. Thus, one could say – unusual for ordinary MPs: “I talked to the Chancellor this morning.” […] A very important matter, leaving the ordinary MPs with the feeling that they are part of the group that they belong to it (Interview No. 5, MP, CDU).

In addition, Kohl was perceived as being very helpful: ‘I had some arguments with him‘, said a Cabinet Minister from the CDU, ‘but I admired him very much for [the way] that he backed people when they were in difficulties’ (Interview No. 3). Although Kohl’s behaviour changed over time, and not every aspect of his personality was covered, the overall picture becomes recognizable. It was not simply due to chance that he stayed in office for sixteen years.

The restrained stabilizer (people-oriented/reserved)

This type is just as able to recognize his team-mates’ emotions as the affable team player. However, the ‘restrained stabilizer’ type is not equally extroverted. He does not like to show himself and his feelings in large groups (low tendency to self-disclosure). Instead, he first backs off, observes and only moves forward when he feels sure of himself. The stabilizer reaches his goals through a patient ‘response to others’ – preferably through face-to-face discussion. As the stabilizer, due to his emphatic manner, is completely capable of establishing relationships with other people that are characterized by deep personal attachment, he will be able partially to reach stage-3 trust. However, it is unlikely that this will happen with a very large circle of people, as it takes time for him to open up to his political interaction partners. In any case, however, by reason of his self-concept, he is predictable and loyal, and will therefore gain trust in level 2. Autonomous political actions do not match his personality, due to his cooperative orientation. To add one restriction: As a head of government is generally expected to be strong and influencing, a very reserved person would probably not achieve this position. Regarding the previous chancellors, Angela Merkel’s leadership style is very close to this type. Although her personality is most difficult to assess one can state she is certainly not a chancellor who attracts attention through her extroversion. Once she said about herself:

By nature I do not open myself up very quickly and speak very much about myself at the very beginning. I think you get to know other people better when you perceive them as a personality and listen to them at first (Merkel, 2007).

Thanks to her sensitive manner, she is much more able to recognize interpersonal signals than her predecessor. This also becomes clear from her manner of leading discussions in the cabinet, which is felt to be very pleasant, especially by those ministers who knew Schroeder’s style (Roll, 2006). However, in groups she is rather reserved, which means it is less easy for her to cultivate contacts. This limits the level of trust within stage 3.

The dominant doer (goal-oriented/decisive)

The fourth type strives above all for independence and self-assertion. He is distanced from the cabinet, his party and his parliamentary group, as he does not like to be tied down. He finds cooperation to be rather tiresome. A premier who strives for dominance perceives his environment as challenging, as he regards politics as a struggle in which he has to prevail. Doers are therefore not particularly good at understanding other people, as they have little empathy and an underdeveloped affiliation motive. Building stage-3 trust is not to be expected from a dominant doer. They find it as difficult as a conscientious rationalist to deal with emotions. A dominant premier can also reach the level of trust in stage 2, especially as his actions are institutionally integrated. However, his autonomous action and competitive interaction orientation endanger this trust. Nonetheless, a dominant doer will also stick to important agreements out of self-interest (stage 1). Thanks to his self-confident manner, a doer will appear very attractive in public appearances and will thereby inspire role-specific trust. With regards to the German chancellors, Gerhard Schroeder was certainly not a team player, but a dominant doer who had to carve his way to the top all by himself and expected the same of others. His personality is not geared towards cooperation and trust building. During his time in office, Schroeder tended to declare political topics to be a matter for the boss, to use metaphors such as ‘chef’ and ‘waiter’ for the allocation of roles within the coalition, to take positions in the media that had not yet been agreed, and to rule with decrees like his famous ‘Basta’ (‘that’s that’). An MP of the SPD considered this leadership style as problematic, as

he didn’t communicate consistently his ideas and thinking processes. He didn’t try to win allies, who could have helped him to pave the way. He was more authoritarian saying very clearly: “I want it to be done in this way. See that you concentrate our troops.” This was extremely difficult (Interview No. 13).

Although Schroeder could of course be highly charming, at the same time his frequently documented tactlessness and his sometimes crushing humour also showed that interpersonal trust and emotional attachment were not a primary goal of his. This attitude is indicated by a cabinet minister of the Green Party:

I’m just thinking whether trust is a category of value for him. Interesting question! I can’t answer. Finally, he’s primarily interested in himself (Interview No. 2).

Table 2 summarizes the correlation between the leadership styles and the trust building process.

Table 2. Textbook Leadership Styles and Tendencies in Trust Building

Type A:



Type B: Affable team-player

Type C:



Type D:

Dominant ‘doer’


Politics as a

rational debate

Politics through motivation and enthusiasm

Politics through patient response to others

Politics as a power struggle


for action

Doing things right (goal-orientation)



Seeking security

Self-assertion and independence

Reaction to






Goal- or people-oriented












on the basis

of objective





Trust building

processes unrelated to leadership style

1. Trust through accumulated knowledge

2. Trust through similar socialization

Typical methods of trust building

3. Trust through reliability, fairness and honesty

4. Trust through role-specific competence (professional competence)

3. Trust through reliability, fairness and honesty

4. Trust through ‘taking each other seriously’

5. Trust through cultivation of contacts and care

3. Trust through reliability, fairness and honesty

4. Trust through ‘taking each other seriously’

5. Limited trust through cultivation of contacts and care

3. Trust through role-specific competence (election)

Level of trust

Stage 2

Stage 3

Stage 2-3

Stage 1-2

Source: author’s illustration.

As shown above, not all heads of government are capable of building personal-emotional trust or are willing to do so. Depending on their personality, they focus to a varying extent on personal relationships. In particular, the conscientious rationalist and the dominant doer are not expected to develop personal trust as they seek primarily a professional distance in relation to their interaction partners. They are not particularly receptive to fine nuances of interpersonal communication. In contrast, the affable team-player finds it easy to gain personal trust, since he is extroverted and people-oriented. Overall, he is the most trust affined leadership type. Trust building applies to the restrained stabilizer as well, who is also people-oriented, but not extroverted. Thus, his capacity to build up trust within political networks is rather limited.

Personality and trust building – A Conclusion

Assessing the significance of interpersonal trust in politics, one has to keep in mind that there are different ways of legitimizing oneself as a head of government. Obviously, a basic level of interpersonal predictability and reliance is necessary to secure support. Beyond that, different options for action are available. Political majorities may be achieved even when personal trust is missing, as peer pressure contributes to compliant behaviour within the parliamentary majority and therefore compensates for personal trust. Concerning the role of the head of government, it should be stressed that the public image as a knowledgeable problem-solver or the perspective of winning the parliamentary election might be equivalent to interpersonal trust. Furthermore, comprehensive research on media management indicates that successful political leaders are those who are very much gifted in the art of public impression management, and are supported by media advisers and a professional campaign team. From this position, trust may be considered as secondary in politics. However, we should put these features into perspective. In order to ensure a smooth flow of communication and stable interactions within the inner circle of the government, more is needed than just public appeal. Integrity, honesty, empathy, personal care and support are key features in politics contributing essentially to government stability and effectiveness. Particularly, in times when public support is fading, interpersonal trust is the most important resource within the cabinet and in relation to the parliamentary party. Political crises may be managed better if the interaction partners are not just connected by political necessity, but rather by a certain amount of sympathy, affection and trust. The willingness to support the head of government and to take risks will increase significantly. Building a warm atmosphere of friendship is obviously not the only way to gain acceptance within the cabinet, but its impact should not be underestimated.


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