Would you follow a leader you didn’t trust?

Dr Paul Browning, Headmaster of St Paul’s School, North Brisbane; previously the founding principal of Burgmann Anglican School in the ACT completed his PhD studies in 2013 identifying practices that leaders could use to develop and enrich a culture of trust in their school.

I was fortunate to hear Paul speak at the August 2014 AHISA conference and what he shared resonated strongly with me. In my years as a teacher and school leader, I have had the privilege to work with some outstanding Principals and then there are those who were memorable for the mistakes they made and the relationships, characters and careers they destroyed in their wake.

Paul writes in his book Compelling Leadership, “No one wants to follow a person, particularly to the unknown, if they don’t trust them. So many leaders fail because they forget to attend to the very basics of leadership: building and maintaining relational trust”.

We notice when trust is missing, because people display behaviours where they feel like they are being watched, they start second guessing their actions, delaying projects because they fear the usual negative feedback and roadblocks. “Sadly, when trust is low, most people perceive danger and go into a self-protective mode; ‘they personalise everything and assess risks in dealing with everyone, tending to cast themselves as the intended recipients of other people’s harmful actions’ (Reina & Reina, 2006, p. 25).”

Paul writes ‘Educational researchers have identified the importance and value of trust within schools and school leadership: trust is a critical ingredient of the social context of schools because:

  • it improves cooperation (Putnam, 1993; Tschannen-Moran, 2001);
  • it enriches openness and health in a school culture (Hoffman, 1994; Hoy, et al., 1992);
  • it is essential to leadership (Sergiovanni, 1992 & 2005); and perhaps most importantly,
  • it facilitates student achievement (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Hoy, 2002; Goddard, et al., 2001).’

As a result of four case studies of highly trusted transformational school leaders, Paul found the 10 key practices to be:

  1. Admit mistakes– give staff permission to explore new things.
  2. Offer trust to staff members – micro managing removes trust
  3. Actively listen – listen to understand, rather than listening with the intent to form a reply. Be present in the moment. Hunt for the emotions. Repeat back what was said.
  4. Provide affirmation– acknowledge your staff, thank them, show you care, congratulate them.
  5. Make informed and consultative decisions– explain reasons for decisions, make consultative decisions.
  6. Be visible around the organization – be seen around the school, people not around are not trusted.
  7. Remain calm and level headed – be consistent, calm, predictable, even-headed so your staff know what to expect from you with each interaction
  8. Mentor and coach staff– the leader’s job is to develop and grow staff, give them feedback, help them to grow both as individuals and as contributors to their field
  9. Care for staff members– be interested in your staff, take time to know their stories
  10. Keep confidences– when concerns are shared, ask is there anything you want me to do about this?

Paul found ‘Interestingly, but not surprisingly, these four schools had very impressive academic track records. The practices were not dependent on personality; they can be learned by anyone wanting to improve the culture of his/her school.

He found ‘Trust has consequences for a range of activities in the school including the way that teachers cooperate and work together, but trust is particularly important when the leader aims to take the staff somewhere unknown, to bring about change (Sergiovanni, 2005).’

Paul’s book is now available free through ibooks.    I highly recommend it.


“No vision, no strategy, no change reform or restructure

will be achieved  without trust”            P. Browning