Monthly Archives: March 2015
Admitting mistakes builds trust

Trust is foundational to a positive culture in any organisation, but how does a leader develop and maintain a culture trust? My PhD research uncovered 10 key practices that highly trusted transformational leaders use to build trust between them and their staff; the first of which is admitting mistakes.

Leaders are not infallible; they are human as one individual who participated in the research project described her leader:

He is very human; he displays a human error side of him… He is happy to admit when he makes mistakes (Sam, teacher).

How leaders deal with their mistakes sets the tone for the rest of the organization and is a key factor in the creation of trust (Reina & Reina, 2006). A leader’s willingness to display his/her vulnerabilities, both personally and professionally engenders a staff’s admiration and trust. Staff members view this practice not as a weakness but as a key strength of leadership, connecting them to their leader on a very human level.

The willingness to be vulnerable, to have the ability to be self-reflective and recognise one’s own strengths and weaknesses, to apologise when an error had been made or to reverse a poor decision portrays the leader’s humility. Dickson (2009) describes humility in leadership as the ability to redirect your power, to forego your status and deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.

Collins (2001) asserts that it is possible to be humble, iron-willed and successful—and many successful leaders have these qualities. These characteristics were certainly evident in one of the four highly trusted leaders studied during the research project: [Ella] was described by her staff as being very upright and professional, and even formidable or stern. Others described [Ella] as “very cut and dry,” not letting emotions sway the decisions that she makes. [Ella] said that trust “isn’t about being nice, because I am certainly not nice.” Yet, [Ella] was happy to be vulnerable and admit freely to her staff that there is much that she does not know.

When was the last time you made a mistake or made a poor decision; how did you respond? Were you willing to be vulnerable in front of the people you lead? Did you have the confidence and humility it takes to say sorry? Did you then act and fix the problem? Are you willing to accept responsibility for other people’s mistakes?

Next blog: Offering trust builds trust

Are you driven to be the best?

I want to be the very best school leader I can be. Why, because for me being a principal (or a teacher for that matter) is more than a job, it’s a vocation. I don’t go to work to produce something, to sell something, or to manage something. I go to work to make a difference. And that difference is measured in people’s lives.

What I do as a principal, the decisions I make, the school culture I create, the way I lead will make a difference in countless people’s lives. It can make a difference to the earning capacity of a young person; it can make a difference to a person’s sense of self-worth, to their wellbeing, the lives of their families, the lives of their future children and the lives of the communities in which they live. The sense of responsibility is huge; that is why I want to be the best principal I can be.

While I have been a school leader for 17 years I don’t think for a minute that I am the best. I can’t allow myself to think I am great because the moment I do I’ll lose the desire to be better. To be better I know that I have to be reflective, honest with myself, willing to be vulnerable and admit that I could have done something better. I often compare myself with other leaders, listen to what they do, learn from their wisdom and experience. However, one thing I really need as a leader is feedback. Without feedback I cannot truly understand the real impact I am having and how I can improve.

To promote growth feedback is vital. But to be of real value a recipient really needs to want it, be willing to listen to it and ultimately, have the desire to be the very best they can be for the responsibly they carry as an educator is enormous.

The same can be said about teaching. I don’t understand why all teachers aren’t driven by the enormous responsibility they have to very best they can be. Our children, and their children deserve outstanding teaching and outstanding schools.

Do you value and welcome feedback? What motivates you as an educator? Is teaching and school leadership more than just a job? If you are a leader, where do you get your feedback from?

When it all boils down, good leadership is about two things: vision and trust

There is a wealth of literature and research on leadership. Many academics and psychologists have committed years to studying and understanding the practice. There have been countless leadership models or styles proposed (e.g. transformational, transactional, collaborative, consultative, servant, etc.), and lists of qualities or attributes of good leadership identified (e.g. honesty, humility, self-control, respect, empathy, inspiring, credible, moral courage, etc.). However, when it all boils down, good leadership is about just two things: vision and trust.

Many people (and leadership models for that matter) confuse leadership with management. A manager is responsible for directing and controlling the work and staff of an organization. Managers typically have their eyes on the bottom line, ensuring that things are functioning efficiently. Leadership on the other hand deals with the ‘top line’; what are the things that I want to accomplish—in other words—vision. Covey (1989) provides a good analogy:

Imagine a group of people cutting a path through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out. The managers are behind them, sharpening the machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up work schedules. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘this way’.

Don’t be confused, management is not leadership. The key difference is vision. A true leader has a vision, and that vision is compelling enough to entice people to follow. A good leader is someone that others choose to follow because they have been convinced that the vision is worth the effort. A compelling vision energizes people by providing them with an exciting picture of the future rather than providing them with rewards and punishments (Bartram & Casimir, 2007). It unites leaders and followers to pursue higher-level goals which are common to both (Sergiovanni, 2005), raising one another to higher-levels of motivation and morality (Burns, 1985).

Vision (vïzh’ən) n: an imagined idea or goal toward which one aspires

Visioning requires you to rise up out of the minutia to scan the horizon, to dream and to imagine what could be, to take a risk and trail blaze. Not everyone can vision; a true leader can. They are not held back by fear; they believe in themselves and what can be. They invest in the vision and keep pursuing it until it is achieved. Not until then is the job done.

However, vision is not enough. No one is a leader without someone to follow; and no one will follow a leader, particularly into the unknown, if they don’t trust him/her. Trust is the critical ingredient that goes hand in glove with vision. Without it leaders cannot expect people to work together to achieve the vision: and ultimately, without trust, the leader will lose credibility and fail (Sergiovanni, 2005; Reina & Reina, 2006).

Research has identified 10 key practices that good leaders consistently use to generate trust and compel followers towards a vision (Browning, 2014). They:

  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.

When a leader turns their attention to trust they begin to reflect on their own behaviour and how it impacts their relationship with the people who choose to follow them. When you examine the practices all the qualities of good leadership espoused in the plethora of literature, models and styles, is encompassed by the notion of trust. For example, humility, transparency, honesty, confidence, respect, courage, empathy, and above all, a genuine focus and commitment to the people who have chosen to go for the vision, rather than the selfish ambition of a bad leader. Good leadership boils down to just two things: vision and trust.


Bass, B. (1985). Leadership and performance beyond expectations. New York: Free Press.

Bartram, T., & Casimir, G. (2007). The relationship between leadership and follower in-role performance and satisfaction with the leader: The mediation effects of empowerment and trust in the leader. Leadership and Organization Development, 28(1), 4-19.

Browning, P. (2014). Why trust the head? International Journal of Leadership in Education. 16 January 2014.

Covey, S. (1989). Seven habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Reina, D., & Reina, M. (2006). Trust and betrayal in the workplace  (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Sergiovanni, T. (2005). Strengthening the Heartbeat. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Compelling leadership takes great courage

This blog was written in response to a question that I was asked about a previous blog on performance management.

I have to make a really hard decision. Already I can feel my anxiety levels rising. My mind is racing, going over a multitude of possible outcomes. I find some of the most difficult decisions to be the ones where there is the most personal risk. I already know that when I break the news to this person they are going to be incredibly hurt. They’ll become angry; go through a range of emotions and may never be able to forgive me. The relationship we currently have may never recover. At risk for me is that person’s respect and perception of me. At risk is the trust others in the organisation have in me as a leader. Will the hard decisions I have to make grow or diminish trust?

I know that others around this person won’t understand why this decision had to be made. They will side with the ‘victim’ of the decision, offer genuine care and support to them and I’ll get the icy stares. “How could he possibly do that to you; and we thought he was such a caring person; he calls himself a Christian?” will be some of the comments said about me, sometimes within earshot. I know that I will never be able to fully explain why the decision had to be made and defend my actions.

As for any compelling leader tough decisions have to be made, often with the long-term view in mind and not the short game. For a school leader these sorts of decisions could be around the expulsion of a student, the termination of a staff member, or a restructure and program of redundancies.

There is a common adage that says you can afford to make a tough decision every now and again once you have banked enough credits in your ‘trust’ account. This line of thought suggests that you can make a withdrawal and then save up enough trust to make another hard call. I wonder if this is true. If it were we might never make the tough call for fear that we don’t have enough in the trust account. How do you know what’s in your account now?

Learning from four highly trusted transformational leaders it was obvious that trust isn’t associated with being nice, or allowing people to have what they want, or making people happy. Highly trusted leaders make hard decisions all the time, if they didn’t they wouldn’t be transforming the organisation in which they work into an even better place.

When it comes to a really difficult call that is going to significantly impact a person, and an ever increasing circle of people around them (the ripple effect), highly trust leaders call on four of the 10 key practices proven to generate trust:

  1. Consultative decision making: While it isn’t appropriate to consult widely when making a hard decision that requires significant confidentiality, trusted leaders still consult. In cases where a person is going to be significantly affected they may well be consulting with their Board, or an external organisation to help them make the best decision. Often there is never a ‘right’ decision; right, like truth, depends on your own perspective. It is important to gain the perspective of others, particularly when you have an emotional attachment to the situation.
  2. Listen: Trusted leaders listen carefully to what is happening around them. They listen careful to hear how people are feeling, predict how people might feel, and respond in a caring way. This can be incredibly difficult because sometimes you just feel like defending yourself and responding in anger in an attempt to tell ‘your side of the story’. Sadly you can’t do this. You have to forgo yourself.
  3. Care: Even though you sometimes have to make a person redundant, expel a student, or terminate a person’s employment you can do it with genuine care for that person. They may feel that you don’t care at all when they are angry with you, but how you respond to that anger, and how you put in place support mechanisms and respect the person will go a long way in terms of trust. Even though you have to make a hard call others will learn that you will still care for them and treat them fairly and with respect.
  4. Confidentiality: It is so tempting to justify why you have to make a call, but to really care for the person most affected you can’t. Even though people will be angry with you, be thinking all sorts of nasty things about you just remember that you aren’t the victim.

Compelling leadership takes great courage. It calls on you to put aside your own emotion, to put aside yourself and behave in ways that engender genuine trust in your leadership. To be trusted doesn’t mean you avoid the hard decisions, quite the contrary, trust is about why you make those decisions, how you make them, and how you care for the people impacted.

Having said all this there is still a risk. I know it isn’t going to be any easier for me. We’re all still human after all. Will I get it right? Probably not. Will it be the best decision? Only time will tell.