Compelling Leadership:
The importance of trust and how to get it

The key ingredient to a positive culture in a school or, for that matter, any organisation in the education or corporate spheres, is trust. A lack of trust, either throughout an organisation or towards a supervisor/leader, is the main barrier to improvement. When a person perceives risk (a risk of failure, a risk of ridicule, and even a risk of job security) they’re less likely to seek feedback, opportunities for growth and the formation of professional collaborative partnerships.


Leaders need to be compelling people

Staff need to know they are valued and supported, and that if they fail it will be treated as a learning opportunity and not an opportunity for retribution. To create the platform for growth, innovation and improved outcomes, leaders need to foster and maintain a culture of trust: they need to be ‘compelling’ people. No one will follow a leader they don’t trust.

Bryk and Schneider’s (2002) extensive research into the effectiveness of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act found that schools reporting strong positive relational trust levels were three times more likely to be categorised as improving in reading and mathematics than those with very weak reports.

At these improving schools, virtually all teachers reported a strong, positive relationship with their principal. They described their principal as an effective manager who supported their professional development, had concern for their welfare and placed the needs of the students first. By contrast, the likelihood of improvement at schools with very weak trust reports was only one in seven. The most telling data showed that schools “with weak trust reports both in 1994 and 1997 had virtually no chance of showing improvement in either reading or mathematics” (Bryk & Schneider, 2002, p. 111).


Trust – how?

The question for leaders is, “how to generate and secure trust?” A PhD study completed in 2013 by Dr Paul Browning identified 10 key leadership practices that head teachers (principals) use to build purposeful relationships of trust. These practices can be learned by any person in a leadership position – middle managers, supervisors, head teachers, even leaders in the corporate world – regardless of their personality and characteristics.

Growing these leadership practices will result in a positive school culture, unleashing enormous potential and opportunities, the creation of the conditions for innovation to thrive, and most importantly, significant improvements in student outcomes.

From the resulting research a Trust and Transformational Leadership Assessment Rubric was designed and tested. Dr Browning was invited by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Sutton Trust to present the Rubric at a global educational leadership Summit in Washington, 2014. In an appraisal of material presented at the summit, participants described the rubric as a powerful tool for supporting improvement in organisational culture.


“Without doubt, the biggest hit of the summit was the work done on trust by Australian headteacher, Dr Paul Browning. His ideas about explicitly developing a high-trust culture captured the spirit of the whole event”

(Tom Sherrington, UK).

“Paul Browning’s evidence-based research on the importance of trust in being an effective Principal seems to me to be fundamentally important to leading/creating truly great schools”

(John Tompsett, UK).

“Your work is an inspiration”

(Dame Alison Peacock, UK).

“Thanks for sending a copy of your work, which is superb. It is a rare exemplary combination of reporting the research itself and explaining the implications for policy and practice”

(Professor Brian Caldwell, Managing Director and Principal Consultant Educational Transformations, Australia).


The Rubric has been used by leaders in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. It has been used to appraise a leader’s current practice and highlight areas for growth should they wish to foster purposeful relationships of trust and a positive school culture.


Bryk, A., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools. New York: Russell Sage.
Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the Heartbeat. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.