The educator and author Stephen Covey once wrote: "Trust is the glue of life. It's the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It's the foundational principle that holds all relationships."
School leaders would do well to remember this. Trust, and with it respect, is critical to the development and maintenance of high-quality professional relationships and establishing a sustainable improvement culture. You cannot be a successful leader, or assist in the creation of a successful school, without everyone in the school trusting you.
Trust enables people to feel supported and secure and to work together collaboratively. It builds confidence and morale, while improving individual and team effectiveness and speeding up organisational improvement. People like to know that they are working with reliable and supportive colleagues and that, as individuals, they are respected, trusted and valued. Trust encourages people to accept responsibility and accountability.
In any leadership strategy, then, building trust should be a fundamental aim. However, it all too often gets overlooked. It is seen as something that occurs naturally as a consequence of a leader's position, or because a certain school environment has been created. This is simply not the case. It should go without saying that trust has to be earned rather than expected. Good leaders do this through their actions and words. They realise that trust can be hard to gain, fragile to hold on to and easily lost. It needs to be established, nurtured and maintained.
The first step to building trust is to treat everyone fairly, politely and with consideration for their feelings and points of view. This includes staff, governors, students and visitors, regardless of rank, connections or whether you have any personal animosity towards or history with them.
Trust also comes from collaborative decision making, providing opportunities for people to have a voice. Encouraging open dialogue should mean that whispering and plotting in corners becomes unnecessary. By accepting that others may have skills in certain areas that are superior to your own and by using their expertise, you can demonstrate that you trust others and, in turn, gain trust as a result.
On a similar theme, leading openly and honestly is crucial. Admit your mistakes; showing weakness proves that you trust others. Be straight with people. Honestly appraise performance in the same way you appraise your own.
Being consistent, reliable and dependable as a leader is also important. This involves keeping your word, not promising what can't be delivered and keeping the goals as steady as possible. Underpinning all these elements is dependability. If a teacher asks for support with a parent meeting, make sure you are there for them; if midday supervisors are struggling to control behaviour and ask for help, be seen to actively model behaviour management strategies to assist; if teachers are struggling with difficult groups of students, ensure that you are proactive and seek solutions to alleviate the problems. Don't always wait to be asked, seek out where you can be useful.
Remember, though, that trust is not always about the grand gestures or the transformative policy. It can simply be about listening, acknowledging effort or making yourself clear.
In these ways, leaders should be able to gain the trust of all people within and connected to a school. Contrary to the opinion of some, trust is not something you automatically gain with promotion. You have to earn it. And once earned, you have to work at it constantly. Without trust, a leader is only leading in name. With trust, they can be an effective and transformative force for good in a school.
Phil Spurr is a former principal and now runs the UK consultancy Positive Education Solutions.
- Trust is essential to good leadership - but leaders must remember that trust has to be earned.
- Leaders should treat every person they encounter with equal respect, being careful to consider others' opinions.
- Open, honest communication is crucial to building trust.
- Collaborative decision making is equally important, as it shows a trust in others that can be reciprocated.
- Being dependable is a key route to gaining trust.
- The small gestures of politeness are as valuable as the larger, transformational strategies.