Trust is the ’emotional glue’
that binds leaders and followers together.
(Bennis & Nanus, 1985, p. 153)

Trust presents a paradox in that it needs to be earned, but in order to be earned, it first has to be given. Covey (1992, p. 31) depicts trust as an emotional “bank account” in which people make deposits and withdrawals with one another. Trust, once broken, however is seldom restored. Trusting someone is like “holding a cup of water in your cupped hands—it [is] so easy to spill the water, and you [can] never get it back” (Follett, 2000, p. 230). To obtain trust, the best way to get model behaviour is to model the behaviour.

Defining trust and implications for leadership practice

The construct, trust, can be defined as the extent to which one engages a relationship and is willing to be vulnerable (willing to risk) to another based on communication and confidence that the latter possesses the qualities of care, character, and competence (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Combs, Harris, & Edmonson, 2013; Tschannen-Moran, 2014a).

Principal leadership is a crucial contributor to trust among teachers, parents and students (Bryk & Schneider, 2003). Effective principals set the tone for their school (Tschannen-Moran, 2014b). They communicate care by expressing concern for others’ wellbeing, placing others’ best interests at heart, and protecting others’ interests and rights. They demonstrate character in the decisions they make for students and teachers on a day to day basis. Their honesty, integrity, and authenticity are all dimensions of relational trust (Covey, 2006). As competent leaders, they reveal their learner-centred mindsets, always working to improve their practice and supporting others. They can identify struggling teachers and provide support through meaningful conversations and assigning appropriate mentors (Combs, Harris, & Edmonson, 2013).

Hiebert and Klatt (2001) identify, among others, key elements of trust and their implications for leadership practice:

Trust is delicate. If trust is broken, it is hard to repair. That is not to say that, given the right circumstances, it is impossible to win back. If the people are given due respect, relationships are prioritised, and goodwill is generated, trust can be regained. But it does take a lot of work.

It takes courage and vulnerability to trust. Courage and vulnerability are especially difficult if one has experienced strong betrayal in one’s life. Trust, however, means giving others the benefit of doubt – “I will trust these people until there is clear evidence that they cannot be trusted.”

Trust is based on what you do. If educators want to be trusted as leaders, they must first be perceived as trustworthy. Trust is not based on leaders’ credentials (i.e., experience or education). It is based on their relationships and what they do, particularly in difficult situations. “Doing” includes demonstrating competence and being sincere and reliable.

Trust only flourishes in a respectful environment. Trust can only grow in an environment of goodwill, respect, and willingness to work on relationship with another person. Without these elements in place, trust does not thrive among people.

Trust is based on integrity and honesty. People trust those who are true to their espoused values. Integrity and honesty sometimes demand frustrating compromise among loyalties–to values, to a relationship, to an organisation, and so on. Effective leaders manage these compromises carefully, not denying their own core beliefs, nor taking the burden of someone else’s problem on their own shoulders.

Building trust among stakeholders

Research shows that successful leaders engage in the following practices to inspire and build trust among teachers, students, parents, and the wider community.

Building relationships. Successful leaders focus on relationship-building in developing a culture of trust (Brewster & Railsback, 2003). They make themselves available to school staff and encourage open communication at formal and informal levels (Blasé & Blasé, 2001). When principals focus on establishing strong relationship with the school community, they build the collaborative capacity of all to foster high performance student outcomes (Bryk & Schneider, 2002). The development of trust in the relationships between the principal and the school community has been linked to increased school effectiveness (Daly & Chrispeels, 2008).

Fostering personal dispositions. Leaders who demonstrate personal integrity, commitment and honesty are reported to develop stronger and more trusting relationships with teachers and the wider school community (Brewster & Railsback, 2003). Trust cannot develop without honesty and integrity, and trust leads to credibility, cooperation and collaboration (Covey, 2006; Scarnati, 1997). Such personal dispositions inspire trust among community members. On the contrary, authoritarian control of a school, micromanagement or being unsupportive of staff can all diminish trust in school leaders (Walker, Kutsyuruba, & Noonan, 2011).

Enacting leadership actions. Effective leaders enact a “say/do” ratio of one to one—”do what you say, and say what you mean” (Burnison, 2012). They openly share and engage teachers in crafting a vision for the school (O’Brien, 2011). They involve teachers in decision making and treat them as capable professionals whose insights are valuable (Blasé & Blasé, 2001; O’Brien, 2011). Supporting experimentation, innovation, and risk taking demonstrates respect for teachers as learners and as professionals whose judgment is trusted (Blasé & Blasé, 2001). When their organisation encounters a problem, they move into a problem-solving mode instead of looking to blame others for what went wrong (Dubrin, Dalgish, & Miller, 2003). Successful leaders welcome dissenting views, reduce teachers’ sense of vulnerability, ensure that teachers have basic resources, provide teachers considerable autonomy, and focus on improvement rather than accountability (Brewster & Railsback, 2003; Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Hargreaves, Halász, & Pont, 2007;  Sebring & Bryk, 2000).

Suggested pointers for “trust behaviour”

Hiebert and Klatt (2001) recommend the following “trust behaviour” pointers that inspire trust among others. The suggested pointers could also be used as self-assessment of behavioural measures of trust. However, it is best to review with a coach or someone who can provide you an objective feedback.

  • Be open with information and rarely withhold it.
  •  Give new people ‘the benefit of the doubt,’ and trust them until proven otherwise.
  •  Be honest and forthright with people.
  •  Be clear about your values and act in accordance with them.
  •  Regard people—by and large—as trustworthy.
  •  Be collaborative in your personal style.
  •  Work hard at creating and maintaining an atmosphere of trust.
  •  Confront apparent breaches of trust rather than have them fester.
  •  Be willing to forgive the admitted breaches of trust of others.
  •  Be willing to accept and ask for forgiveness for your breaches of trust.

Concluding thought

Successful leaders play a critical role in building a culture of trust that creates conditions for enhancing performance in schools. A school’s intellectual capital cannot be effectively implemented to support the success of all students without a strong moral purpose and shared beliefs about life and learning (Harris, Caldwell, & Longmuir, 2013). Effective leaders also place “trust in the transcendent”, a stance that invigorates human agency and reminds us of the spiritual dimension in all our activities (Briskin, 2012). Too often this aspirational quality has been focused on the charismatic persona of the leader rather than the vitality of group itself. The world is filled with stories of exceptional leaders who exercised wisdom. Yet what is compelling about these stories is what emerged collectively: a shared sense of trust among all stakeholders. Gandhi, King and Mandela were wise leaders not just because of what they said or did but also because of the spiritual dimension of their leadership and the abiding trust they inspired among millions. Their behaviour was less paramount than their motive (reflecting values). W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet, conveys the primacy of values eloquently:

“The Light of Lights
Looks always on the motive, not the deed,
The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.”



Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). On leaders: Strategies for taking charge. New York: Harper and Low.

Blasé, J., & Blasé, J. R. (2001). Empowering teachers: What successful principals do. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Brewster, C., & Railsback, J. (2003). Building trusting relationships for school improvement: Implications for principals and teachers. Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (By request series). Retrieved on 10 December 2015,

Briskin, A. (2012). Deep dialogue: Harvesting collective wisdom. In C. S. Pearson (Ed.), The transforming leader (169-180). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koeheler.

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bryk, A. S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: a core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 40-44.

Burnison, G. (2012). The twelve absolutes of leadership. New York: McGraw Hill.

Combs, J. P., Harris, S., & Edmonson, S. (2015). Four essential practices for building trust. Educational Leadership, 72(7), 18-22.

Covey, S. R. (1992). Principle-centred leadership. London: Simon and Schuster.

Covey, S. M. R. (2006). The speed of trust. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Daly, A. J., & Chrispeels, J. (2008). A question of trust: predictive conditions for adaptive and technical leadership in educational contexts. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 7, 30-63.

Dubrin, A. J., Dalgish, C., & Miller, P. (2003). Leadership. Milton, Queensland: Wiley.

Follett, K. (2000). Code to zero. London: Macmillan.

Hargreaves, A., Halász, G., & Pont, B. (2007). School leadership for systemic improvement in Finland: A case study report for the OECD activity. Improving School Leadership. Retrieved on 7 December 2015,

Harris, J., Caldwell, B., & Longmuir, F. (2013). Literature review: A culture of trust enhances performance. Melbourne: Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.

Hiebert, M., & Klatt, B. (2001). The encyclopedia of leadership. New York: McGraw Hill.

O’Brien, D. (2011). How leaders develop and direct relational trust building efforts in schools. Masters by research thesis. University of South Australia. Retrieved on 5 December 2015,

Scarnati, J. T. (1997). Beyond technical competence: honesty and integrity. Career development International, 2(1), 24-27.

Sebring, P.B., & Bryk, A.S. (2000). School leadership and the bottom line in Chicago. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(6), 440-443.

Tschannen-Moran, Megan (2014a). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools (The Leadership & Learning Center). Kindle Edition: Wiley.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2014b). The interconnectivity of trust in schools, In D. Van Maele, P. B. Forsyth, & M. Van Houtte (Eds.), Trust relationships and school life: The influence of trust on learning, teaching, leading, and bridging. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer.

Walker, K., Kutsyuruba, B., & Noonan, B. (2011). The fragility of trust in the world of school principals. Journal of Educational Administration, 49(5), 471-494.

Yeats, W. B. (1895). The Countess Cathleen, Act 3. Poems. T. Fisher Unwin.


Title Image: Monumento al maestro. Pachuca, Hidalgo (Mexico).


Print Friendly, PDF & Email