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Leading Through Challenges: Trust

This article was originally written for Edvance on November 9, 2020.

As a leader during a global pandemic, you are in the middle of one of the most poignant litmus tests of trust. I say this is a litmus test, not because trust isn’t valued at the best of times; it is. But when times are challenging, trust becomes a vital concern and we must quickly identify:

  1. who we trust

  2. who will trust us

  3. who doesn’t trust us, and,

  4. who we won’t trust.

Uncertainty drives us to look to those we find trustworthy. If we can lean on someone we trust, and see them leading our organization, we can remain calm and continue to work. Alternatively, if we find out that we live in a trust vacuum, we may choose to abandon ship or to simply hang on for dear life and hope for the best. As the leader of an organization, it’s important to regularly examine this issue of trust. It may be a useful exercise to look back at the onset of the pandemic to assess whether others trusted you as the world became uncertain. Does this reflection feel affirming, or difficult?

I want to unpack trust as presented by two experts on leadership—John Maxwell and Brené Brown. I hope that they will help us to reflect on what we are doing well, and where we can grow in our leadership.

The American business leader John Maxwell shares in his leadership podcast “the number one responsibility of a leader is to earn trust with his or her people.” Number one. Maxwell defines trust as “an attitude that allows people to rely on, have confidence in, and feel sure about people and things.” The good news is that he believes you can develop trust by practicing a number of specific things in your leadership. He opens with some simple necessary concepts that perhaps you have practiced over the years, and hopefully are paying extra attention to through the pandemic:

  1. consistency (so that the people around you can predict your behaviour), and

  2. accurate, open communication (so that people can believe what you are telling them).

Maxwell shares that part of consistency is just showing up. In the spring, this became difficult given the requirements of physical distancing and closed school buildings. A fellow school leader shared with me that during the early days of COVID and remote learning, they got up at the same time, dressed as to go to work, and signed on to Zoom at the normal beginning of the school day, open to greet anyone who wanted to show up. Students popped online to say hello and chat just as they would on any given normal day. This leader modelled simple consistency, and the community knew where to find them at the start of every school day. Consistency also extends to your behaviour and reactions, so it is important to ensure you are as measured as possible.

Accurate, open communication builds trust, but what you share doesn’t always need to be good news. Positive news is welcome when we can offer it, and an optimistic outlook certainly helps shape the demeanour of those following us, but this has the opposite effect when it isn’t true. Telling someone that ‘everything is fine’ when it isn’t breeds suspicion and doubt over time. Truth telling now allows people to believe you as an accurate and open communicator later.

In his podcast, Maxwell shares other necessary elements to gain the trust of your team: competence, empowerment of others, courage to risk in relationships, and integrity. (For extra homework, check out how these align with the concepts that Paul Marcus outlined from Canoeing the Mountains in Edvance Notice vol 3 issue 02.)

It isn’t as simple as assuming that if people trust us we are trustworthy, or that if people don’t trust us that we aren’t. Trust in leadership is a two-way street. We may work hard to be trust-worthy, but we must also have others that are trusting (perhaps we can we call this our trust-quotient?). I find that Brené Brown’s research and writing probes into these nuances beyond a set of identified competencies or behaviours, and I’m grateful for her book Dare to Lead.

Brown’s research aligns with the definitions in Charles Feltman’s book, The Thin Book of Trust. Trust is “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” (for example, your school community might say ‘I will trust you as a leader with the school that we’ve invested years of blood, sweat and tears building.’) Conversely, distrust is “deciding that what is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation).”

To build trust in our leadership, Brown defines the elements of trust in an acronym BRAVING:

Brown’s offers a downloadable Dare to Lead workbook at On page 34 there is an exercise to help you ‘operationalize’ these with your team (perhaps your board or your staff) to identify and commit to behaviours that will build trust.

I want to suggest a few take-away questions to ponder from Maxwell and Brown’s work outlined above:

  1. Are you able to identify strong points in your ‘trust quotient’ with your community? How about weak points?

  2. Are you able to trust your board/staff/community? How? How not?

  3. Are there people in your community or on your staff with whom you can build trust beyond where it is currently low (even if it’s no fault of your own)?

  4. What are one or two quick wins available to you over the next 8 months of this year to establish and grow trust?

If Maxwell is right, that “earning trust with your people is the number one job of a leader”, then these small wins will allow us (leaders and communities) to develop better and more effective leadership relationships. When leading through challenging times like these, better trust and stability will help us lead our schools to a place where they can pursue their mission and thrive.

(For yet another read into developing trust in Christian leadership, Dr. Phil Pledger shares his top ten steps toward building leadership trust on his blog ‘The Higher Calling Coach’.)


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