Leadership and the Power of Trust

The quotation is powerful for a number of reasons. Not least because we instinctively know it to be true. However, for schools it works just as well if you replace ‘love’ with ‘leadership’ (in fact, some would argue that great leadership is like love anyway – selfless, empowering, sustaining, unconditional – but that’s for another essay). Great leadership in schools is underpinned by the ability to form great relationships with colleagues, families and children: without healthy relationships, we’re at a significant disadvantage. And, more importantly, the young people and adults with whom we work won’t get the experiences or the opportunities they need to thrive. At the heart of any healthy relationship sits trust: and without trust, leadership is unstable, unhappy and lost.

A number of far more articulate and knowledgeable people than I have written about the power of trust: from Jim Collins to Stephen Covey to Patrick Lencioni to Leadership Matters’ very own Mary Myatt and Andy Buck so there is plenty material to get hold of and reflect upon. And yet, despite this, when things aren’t working well in school culture very often a lack of trust is the single biggest cause of the difficulty: be it students unwilling to moderate their behaviour, families wanting to challenge necessary innovations or staff unwilling to release the ‘discretionary’ effort it takes to create a really great school.

Less experienced leaders may ask how you might build trust in others? Ernest Hemingway put it simply: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” However, it’s a two-way process and there are a number of qualities necessary to generate a culture of trust in your school. These include: honesty, warmth, clarity, integrity, authenticity, selective vulnerability and competence. Showing you care about others is a strong way to build trust: you show this by supporting them to get better at what they do by providing honest and timely feedback on their performance. This takes effort to do effectively but will bring greater capacity and impact in the long term. Feedback can range from comments on an assembly they led to a meeting they chaired or on the tone of a conversation overheard. It can be developmental over time around a project they’re leading, moving from mentoring to coaching as their confidence increases. The person will always take what is said seriously as long as they trust that the comments are given in a spirit of wanting them to do better, of caring about them. If trust is weak, those comments will be viewed with suspicion and, at best, ignored or, at worst, seen as a act of personal hostility.

So, to build trust, you show an interest in others and find out any points of similarity between you (shared interests, ideas, experiences) as well as remembering things which are really important when you can – from birthdays to anniversaries. Again, if the colleague believes you mean it, trust grows. You are clear and consistent in your expectations of others and the ways in which you expect them to behave. Remember, trusting is not the same as liking although the former will usually lead to the latter (but not, I think, vice versa).

To build trust, you always do what you say you’ll do and say thank you when others do that too. You show that you don’t have to be perfect to be excellent and acknowledge areas where you can improve your performance (selective vulnerability); others won’t take risks unless they feel safe and they don’t take risks if their boss never takes any either. It helps build trust if you are very good at what you do – as a line manager, mentor and coach and, of course, as a classroom practitioner! – but self-aware enough to avoid arrogance and to know the potency of self-deprecating humour (competence). You treat people kindly whenever you can (warmth) and never give yourself the benefit of the doubt where you wouldn’t offer that to others (what Lencioni refers to as the ‘fundamental attribution error’ in The Advantage). If you genuinely want people to do better, all this is much more straight forward. It’s always easier when you mean it.

As a leader, you can work on developing these qualities and making them part of your team’s and your school’s culture; but to get better at them, you’ll need to trust others to give you feedback as to how well you’re doing with them. Why would you want to do so? Why take that risk? If others don’t trust you, you can’t lead. It’s as simple and as complex as that. As leaders, we underestimate the power of trust at our peril.




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