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Trustworthy Leadership

Change moves at the speed of trust.

- Steven Covey

My youngest son just got his license. I’ll admit my stomach still gets the tiniest bit queasy when I say it. Didn’t we just buy him his first bike? Put dollars under his pillow from the tooth fairy? Time is a funny thing, and while I know there is no stopping it, this landmark accomplishment has unlocked another set of parenting concerns. Will he be safe? What if he gets in an accident or breaks down somewhere? We needed him to have a vehicle that would give him safe, reliable, predictable forward momentum for everything the future holds for him. My husband and I found our affordable solution in an eggplant colored 2002 Lexus that Elijah fondly refers to as Lex Luthor. While it has seen better days, it is everything we need it to be. As long as we maintain it well, keep the oil changes up to date, and make sure the tires and brakes are kept in good repair, Lex should take him to some exciting new places.

So what does this have to do with leadership? Quite simply, we are in the driver’s seat, leading our institutions, filled with folks, to new destinations and exciting prospects. However, if we don’t check under the hood to maintain the mechanics of our leadership, we may likely never arrive or even lose people along the way. We need to routinely run our diagnostics to make sure we are prepared for the road ahead, and I would argue that the oil for our engine is trust.

Leadership is a complex thing. There is no single, clear definition of what a leader should look like, but rather a composite picture of skills, attitudes, styles, EQ, and IQ that is personal to each individual and their context. Great leaders come in all varieties, but I am almost sure every one of them has at least a single thing in common - a high degree of trust from those they lead. Trust seems to be at the very heart of everything. Especially in contexts where change and innovation are essential for the work. Without it, gears can grind to a very painful halt. Has there ever been a time in education where change and innovation, and therefore trust, have been more necessary?

In the past few years, education has had to respond quickly and (hopefully) effectively to a global pandemic, immediate technological adjustments, issues of equity and racial righteousness, addressing larger than ever learning gaps, and a move to deeper, more authentic learning experiences, to name a few. Change makes people feel vulnerable, nervous, uncertain. Trust in leaders and one another is what enables people to be willing to take risks. Without trust, resistance, fear, anxiety, and downright hostility to change can take root. Large and long-term systemic changes like the ones above require buy in and commitment from our faculty and staff. We cannot afford to move forward in half-measures if we are going to meet the challenges before us, and that is going to require elevated levels of trust in the leaders at the institutional helm.

So, how do you build or enhance trust? Are we even clear on what that might entail? In the wise words of Rebecca DuFour, Clarity Precedes Competence. How clear are we on what

trust requires?

5 Facets of Trust

Trust is not a target but rather a byproduct of repeated behavior. One model I find helpful as I think about leadership development is Facets of Trust. In this model, there are five core elements that comprise trust (Hord, Roussin & Sommers, 2009). When all of these are fully present, enhanced levels of trust are a natural result. If they are not, chances are your organization is not as effective or healthy as it could be, and your engine is leaking trust.

Benevolence - This is not merely donuts at a faculty meeting or a note of encouragement in a mailbox (although both are likely deeply appreciated!). Rather, this is the deeply held belief by the people you lead that your decisions will not lead to harm but instead be made in their best interests. Benevolence can look like engaged listening, clear and nuanced communication, or seeking first to understand the concerns of those you lead. It is also the impression of knowing and holding your people in unconditional positive regard.

Questions to Consider:

  • How often do you seek people out for feedback on how a new idea might affect them?

  • If there are naysayers, do you work at understanding their position (without defensiveness) and the nugget of truth that almost certainly lies at the center of their critique?

  • How do you let your people know you take their needs and perspectives seriously?

When people feel understood, affirmed, and considered, they will more easily trust that whatever path their leader guides them down will ultimately lead to good, even if they can’t always see the whole vision. They trust their leaders will not lead them to harm (Hord, Roussin, & Sommers, 2009; Cummings & Bromily, 1996).

Competence - Trust deepens when leaders do their job well. Competence is demonstrated when leaders perform a task as expected, according to appropriate and expected standards.

Questions to Consider:

  • Are things running smoothly and well?

  • Do people have clarity regarding expectations and feel like their questions have been answered?

  • Do they see follow-through and deep commitment to upholding norms? Do they hear coherent and honest messaging from you?

  • Does their day-to-day feel predictable, well-run, and professional?

If they do, then they would likely expect that would continue to be the case - in other words, they trust the school will be competently managed. In schools, teachers and leaders depend on one another’s competence to accomplish the learning goals of the school. Competence is a non-negotiable for trust (Hord, Roussin, & Sommers, 2009).

Openness - Openness is evident when we make ourselves vulnerable to one another, sharing information, influence, and control (Hord, Roussin, & Sommers, 2009). Openness signals reciprocal trust. When we share information and control, it increases vulnerability because it distributes power.

Questions to Consider:

  • How often do you pull back the curtain regarding certain decision-making processes? If you cannot yet answer the question or don’t know the answer, how honest are you about that?

  • When was the last time you elevated a faculty or staff member, according to their gifts, to help lead? How often do you “share the mic?”

  • Have you taken every opportunity to give credit for successes to your team?

When leaders are not open, they can be perceived as being controlling or withholding. Distrust breeds distrust, and without openness, you begin to build a wall between the leader and those being led (Kramer, Brewer & Hanna, 1996).

Reliability - When people believe they can depend on someone consistently, they are considered reliable. Reliability is a combination of both predictability and care (Hord, Roussin, Sommers, 2009).

Questions to Consider:

  • It might seem like a small thing, but do you show up when you say you will? Do you protect people’s time?

  • Do you follow through on your commitments without excuses?

  • If you ask something over and above from your people, are you the first one in line to model that expectation?

The more consistent and reliable our leadership is, the more trust people will place in you, whatever the future may hold. It follows the old adage that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Even in times of change and risk, reliability helps people believe that outcomes will be positive and predictable, which calms anxiety and helps grease the wheels of progress.

Honesty - Honesty concerns one’s character, integrity, and authenticity. An honest person can be trusted to tell you the truth, accurately recount situations, and be the same person in every venue. They are who they say they are, and behave in ways consistent with who they portray themselves to be.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you speak directly, without belittling?

  • Do you hold people accountable and, in turn, ask to be held accountable?

  • Are you real with your people?

  • Have you ever apologized or taken responsibility for something that didn’t go as planned?

There is a correspondence between one’s statements and deeds, which epitomizes integrity. An honest leader takes responsibility for their actions and does not lay the blame on others. This makes people feel safe in your hands (Hord, Roussin, Sommers, 2009).

While these might seem like discrete elements, they are actually interdependent; they are all linked. If one is not perceived as competent, they would likely not be thought of as highly reliable either. If openness doesn’t exist, then likely there would be doubt about honesty and benevolence. Developing any one of these facets will likely enhance others as well, there’s mutual reinforcement in each direction.

Assessment of Trust

So, trust is important. It’s the engine. Now what? It is unwise to simply hope we are trusted. We must investigate and interrogate our own perceptions. Although it might feel a little daunting, knowledge brings with it a path of restoration that can amplify leadership and support transformational change. Here are a few examples of approaches leaders can use to assess the perception of their trustworthiness

Surveys - Conducting a survey of your people is a great way to pull back the curtain. Elena Aguilar has a short, simple example here. The problem, of course, is that if trust is low people might not feel safe offering you honest feedback. In such cases, having an HR representative or third party conduct the survey and tabulate the data with a guarantee of confidentiality might be a solution. They can also come back to you with themes and areas of growth in formats that make you feel safer as well. This information can help you develop a growth plan to develop the facets of trust in your leadership that might be lacking.

Conversations - Have people openly expressed distrust in whether they can rely on you? Is there a defensive element to interchanges you have, or are people merely polite with a thin veneer of friendliness? None of these in individual cases may be cause for alarm; after all as leaders we sometimes have tough conversations that might elicit responses like this from time to time. However, if you notice unhealthy communication patterns or it feels widespread, chances are there could be a trust deficit.

“Read the room” - You can learn a lot about your leadership style simply by being observant about the way your staff interacts with you. They might be communicating more than you know. Some things to watch for are:

  • Abundant questions (What do you mean, how will this happen, how will you follow through), double checking (do you really mean what you say, are you committing to this), need for high level of detail up front, or pushback and concern over what should be things easily accepted may signal a concern about reliability and/or competence. Sometimes these might simply be an indication of a need for greater clarity, but if this is a common occurrence, it may be a sign they are looking to hold you accountable for following through on your commitments.

  • A sense that people are carefully choosing their words around you might indicate a concern about benevolence, honesty and openness.

  • Body language - folded arms, guarded interchanges, lack of engagement, ambivalent exchanges, stoicism may be a sign there is a trust deficit.

Working to increase our trustworthiness not only benefits those we lead in practical ways, but is also our very solemn responsibility. We have gifts, and God expects them to be increased as we seek wisdom. Luke 16:10 promises that those who prove trustworthy will be entrusted with even more - God sincerely wants our leadership to flourish! And in James 1:5 he promises to give us the wisdom we need when we ask Him for it. So, be encouraged and pray boldly! While these can be hard things to consider, the growth and the resulting increase in trust you experience as you work with your faculty and staff will ensure you are ready for the journey ahead.


Cummings, L. L., & Bromily, P. (1996). The organizational trust inventory (OTI): Development and validation. In R. Karmer & T. Tyler (Eds.), Trust in organizations (pp. 302–330). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Hord, S. M., Roussin, J. L., & Sommers, W. A. (2009). Guiding professional learning communities: Inspiration, challenge, surprise, and meaning. Corwin Press.

Kramer, R. M., Brewer, M. B., & Hanna, B. A. (1996). Collective trust and collective action. Trust in organizations: Frontiers of theory and research, 357-389.


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