Category: Leadership
Trust improves outcomes—but how do you get it?

trustTrust is the fundamental resource for successful leadership. No one wants to follow a person, particularly to the unknown, if they don’t trust them. And yet, trust is a word that is absent when we describe some the leaders in our modern society. So many leaders fail because they forget to attend to the very basics of leadership: building and maintaining relational trust.


“we notice trust as we notice air, only when it becomes scarce or polluted”

The topic of trust is both intriguing and elusive. The idea of trust is hard to define but we certainly know when it is missing. Many a person has said that ‘we notice trust as we notice air, only when it becomes scarce or polluted’. Betrayal and distrust are particularly insidious behaviours because the mission and objectives of the organization are so easily undermined (Geist & Hoy, 2004). 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).

Our own understanding of the notion of trust will depend on the lens of our life experience, the way that we view the world because of our past experiences (Caldwell & Hayes, 2007; Rousseau, 1995). This means that it is virtually impossible to have a universal definition of trust because it is a socially constructed phenomenon.

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). 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).

How to develop a culture of trust? My recent PhD study aimed to identify practices that leaders could use to develop and enrich a culture of trust in their school. As a result of four case studies of highly trusted transformational school leaders 10 key practices that engender trust between a leader and his/her staff were identified. 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:

  1. Admit mistakes;
  2. Offer trust to staff members;
  3. Actively listen;
  4. Provide affirmation;
  5. Make informed and consultative decisions;
  6. Be visible around the organization;
  7. Remain calm and level-headed;
  8. Mentor and coach staff;
  9. Care for staff members;
  10. Keep confidences.

These practices are relevant to anyone in a leadership position. They are also not dependent on context: even CEOs of the corporate world would do well to attend to them. Over the coming weeks each practice will be defined, giving interested leaders an insight in behaviours that have a direct impact on the performance of students and their organisations.

For a list of the references cited please email

How do you create the conditions for innovation in a school?

Classroom - Early 20th CenturySchools are notoriously conservative. They were conceived in the industrial age. Since their birth little has changed. David Price suggested that if time travel were possible, a person traveling from 1900 to 2013 would be overwhelmed by the changes they saw, but would feel completely at home in a school. Innovation is a necessity for schools if they are to truly educate students through engaging and enriching learning experiences.

Classroom - Early 21st CenturyInnovation doesn’t just happen on a broad scale in schools. It does in little pockets, but often the innovation isn’t lasting. The bold individual who tries something new either gives up, or moves on. For broad scale innovation to occur in schools you need three key ingredients: a culture of trust; leadership that challenges the status quo and rewards ideas; and, collaboration.

Schools are quite paradoxical really. They are places for learning; but mostly just for the students. We proclaim that we want to develop ‘life-long learners’ but as teachers, we tend to stop learning once we graduate and fall into the habit of doing the same thing each year. Change only occurs when a mandate comes from above; for example, dictating a change in curriculum. Fear tends to keep teachers on the same treadmill year in and year out, driven by parental and community expectations and political measures of ‘good schooling’: Year 12 results, NAPLAN results, PISA results, etc. ‘Back to the basics’ is the mantra that is trundled out by politicians and those who know little about what true education is actually about when standardised results appear to be falling.

We often fail to realise that what is more important is the creation of engaging learning opportunities so our students aren’t bored year in and year out. This implies that something has to change, and with it there is risk; a risk of failure, a risk of ridicule, and even a risk of job security. Teachers will not take the risks necessary to innovate unless there are high levels of trust in the organisation. Teachers need to know that ideas are valued, are worth the risk, and that if they fail, they will be treated as a learning opportunity and not an opportunity for retribution. To create the platform for innovation school leaders need to foster a culture of trust.

Trust though, is not enough. There has to be an unsalable thirst for creativity, imagination and innovation. This has to come from the leader, whose role is to create a shared vision and to encourage staff to question: “Why do we do this? Is it really important? Are my students fully engaged in their learning? Would I be happy for my child to be in this class?” Questions invite people to dream, imagine and ultimately, generate ideas.

The best ideas, and therefore the best innovations, are ones that are dreamt up together and worked on collaboratively by a team of teachers. When there are high levels of trust and a spirit of collaboration, good ideas have a habit of growing legs. Good ideas become big ideas, ending up as innovation that sticks. Even better innovation occurs when students are invited into the collaborative space, with teachers and students solving problems together.

Trust is further enhanced when innovations are celebrated, which in turn, encourages even more innovation. It is also important to celebrate innovation that didn’t work as this too fosters trust, develops resilience and encourages persistence. Before long a school will find itself on a rollercoaster of truly engaging learning.