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