Trust and trust-building qualities frequently top polls and surveys that attempt to show the most important qualities of a leader. A 2016 McQuaig Global Talent Recruitment Survey places trust as the second most important quality of an effective leader while a PewResearch Center survey shows honesty to be most important. More recently in the run up to the 2016 US election a Fortune poll showed that of the 2000 American voters surveyed, honesty and integrity were seen as most important qualities for leaders to possess. In the area of school leadership, Gary Hopkins, editor of Education World, writes that from a survey of 43 Principals, trustworthiness and credibility were viewed as highly important qualities for school leaders.

Trust, as a quality for being an effective school leader, is appropriately discussed in Dr Anthony Muhammad’s book, Transforming School Culture. This book examines in detail some of the challenges school leaders face when it comes to building trust. In one particular section of the book, Muhammad uses the work of Karl Weick, on the lessons learned from tragic wildfire disasters, to illustrate the challenges that leaders face when building trust in schools, which include:

  • Without providing a clear rationale for making decisions / changes, or operating in a certain way in our schools, leaders will not be trusted.
  • Leaders need to show the ‘right’ motivation for why they make certain decisions in order to be trusted by staff and faculty. For example, leaders that make decisions based on what is right for the school, its staff and students will be trusted more than one who is perceived to be in a leadership role for their own benefit.
  • Past experiences and perceptions about leaders are difficult to change, never mind how good the new leader may be. Teachers moving to a new school may not instantly trust the new school’s leaders, if they have had bad prior experiences with leaders in their previous schools. Similarly, a new leader coming to a school where trust is at a low point because of the actions of a previous leader, then the new leader will have a big challenge of re-building trust.
  • If a leader’s actions do not back up their words, then they will not be trusted. Teachers not only want to see leaders do what they say they will do but they want leaders to exert a high degree of fairness when there is inconsistency between teachers with bottom line, non-negotiable tasks and requests.

So, what are some simple steps to build trust in our schools? The list of actions below suggest some ways that leaders can work to build trust in their school communities:

  1. Be clear, open and honest with the decisions that we make. Provide the rationale for change and plan for it properly. Schools cannot afford to have failed change efforts, as it is then difficult to trust the next change that is asked for.
  2. If consultation is going to be occur before making a decision, then do it properly. Be open to respectfully disagreeing when consensus cannot be reached.
  3. Give timely, appropriate and honest feedback to others about how they can improve and provide opportunities for others to give you feedback, as a leader and as a colleague. Act on feedback given to you, otherwise why seek it.
  4. Do not promise something that you cannot deliver upon and if people mistake your intentions then be quick to correct them before it is too late. Where promises are made, ensure that they are fulfilled.
  5. If tasks are assigned to teachers, then make sure the tasks are completed property and appropriate conversations occur with those that may struggle, with the offering of support. Follow-up and follow-through.
  6. Engage in professional learning with teachers and join them for the journey, especially if what is being learned is pivotal to the success of a school initiative. If something is important, then teachers expect to have leaders present and actively involved.
  7. Put others first but do not be a martyr about it. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to servant leadership.
  8. Leadership is not about you, its about others, so there’s no need to seek credit for what you do. Keep acknowledging the role that others play in making things happen and celebrate their successes even though you may have had a big role to play
  9. Avoid double standards. If a rule, or norm, is set / agreed in our schools, then leaders must model the way. If it is too inconvenient, then consider getting rid of the rule / norm, if you can.
  10. Finally. Take an interest in all colleagues beyond just professional interactions. Working together is about building healthy relationships. Teachers and leaders are human too, so it is good to ask one another about family, recreation and life in general.