Trust is the Fundamental Ingredient for
Excellent School Leadership
It is often said that organizational leaders serve at an intersection between two sides of an hourglass. On one side of the hourglass is the staff of the organization. On the other side of the hourglass is the customer base, constituency, client, or stakeholder group of the organization. And the leader is in the middle—the connector of both sides. The leader’s job is twofold: first, to communicate to the staff what the customers want, and second, to communicate to the customers the value of what the organization can produce. In schools, we can see this quite well: a school leader should avidly share with potential families the value of the school; likewise, the leader should avidly share with the school staff the needs and desires of parents, governmental bodies, the labor market, and other stakeholder groups.
This arrangement sounds pleasant and logical. But as any school principal will readily say: being caught in the middle of both sides is stressful. Let’s consider an example: One school’s parent committee has expressed to the principal their frustration over their children receiving too much homework over the weekend. Their claim is that their children do not have enough time to complete the homework, and thus, weekends become more stressful than they otherwise should be. The principal takes this concern to the teachers, who in return make a strong case to the principal that the homework is essential for the academic achievement of the students. The teachers claim that they do not have enough time for guided practice on mathematics lessons, and therefore, they need to assign homework on the weekends.
Both sides have valid points. Both sides have made their arguments in good faith. But this is no comfort to the principal, who now must go back to the parents and express the concerns of the teachers. In short, as the hourglass illustration shows, the principal is caught in the middle. The principal realizes that the parents will be frustrated at the principal’s inability to change the behavior of the teachers. But the teachers are frustrated at the principal’s inability to change the perceptions of the parents.
Caught in such a situation, it is common for a school leader to think: Why am I, a mere messenger, being attacked? But most leaders ultimately recognize that while they are communicating between two groups, they are not, in fact, messengers. A leader in this illustration must make a decision, whether it favors one side or the other, or propose a compromise that perhaps both sides will find to be ineffectual. How does a school leader navigate this challenge–one that is likely to be repeated in many different ways among many different stakeholder groups?
The second step in this solution is to build trust among all groups. This is the most important part in the process. It is also among the most crucial aspect in school leadership, as reported in numerous empirical studies (1). And, it is also the hardest–mainly because it takes time. In fact, the very essence of a leader’s trust is recognized only through consistent observations of the leader’s behavior over time. By definition, it will not be built between a leader and a school staff, or the parents, students, board members, community members, or any other stakeholder group, overnight. Trust will only develop by allowing all stakeholder groups to observe the leader’s consistency and honesty over a significant period of time.
But during this time, some school leaders fall short of developing trust with parents or teachers or students. I suggest that there are two reasons for this. First, impatience. Waiting to earn trust takes too much time, some school leaders will feel. As a result, they may cut corners by attempting to buy favor with one group over another. For example, in the previous illustration, the principal may have felt that her job will be easier over time by siding with the parents, so the principal makes a quick decision in the parents’ favor then offers a different rationale to the teachers, hoping the rift will go away quickly. Maybe the principal believes that happy parents will be a more powerful advocate of the principal to the school board than a happy group of teachers.
Second, some school leaders burn up on the pathway to trust because they fail to rationalize decisions. As most people intuitively understand, an organizational leader who cannot honestly articulate the reason for a decision, while also acknowledging all the competing interests that may exist, is a leader who will, over time, be perceived as someone who makes decisions for her own good.
One of the greatest challenges in school leadership is patience with the trust-building process. When a new school principal is hired, many people within a school–from parents to teachers, students to board members–will hope that this new leader will bring favorable change to the interests of a particular group. Most experienced school principals will likely recall their first days on the job, wherein dozens of self-appointed stakeholder group representatives rush to have a meeting and express their concerns. This is fully understandable: each stakeholder group wants to be heard, wants their grievances settled, wants their needs fulfilled. As such, attempting to gain favor, it is easy for a new school leader to quickly make decisions even without a full picture.
So, what should a school leader do in that very long–and often excruciating–period in which trust must be built? How does a principal get from “brand new” to fully trustworthy? And how can that leader survive this difficult process, in which trust is being built? I offer a simple daily checklist. A new school principal can keep it on her desk and look at it in the morning; then at the end of the day, she can review it, carefully recalling the day’s events. Perhaps one day, the principal realizes that she made a decision that contributes to a lack of trust. No worries. It happens to every leader. Trust is not destroyed by a single action. Rather, trust is built up through the composite of actions, some of which may not be optimal. A new leader should aim to do the best she can, knowing that perfection is impossible.
Here’s the trustworthy school principal daily checklist:
- Do people know the reasons for my decisions today, even if they don’t agree with my decisions? Even if they don’t care to know, do they have the ability to discover and know the reasons?
- Are students at the core of every decision I have made today? Did my decisions reflect my overall concern for their well-being and holistic academic and social development?
- Did I feel compelled to hide any piece of knowledge or decision-making process from someone who has the right to know?
- Did any of my actions today cause me to have to cover up something I did?
- Did I cut any corners today that should not have been cut? Did I work the hardest I possibly could–physically, mentally, emotionally?
- Did I actively and openly attempt to listen to different or new viewpoints today? Did my actions and decisions after listening reflect an acknowledgement of those different viewpoints, even if I didn’t make a favorable decision to that viewpoint?
- Even if it was emotionally difficult for me, was I respectful to each person with whom I came into contact today? Did I express gratefulness to multiple people throughout the day?
- Will at least 75% of the people who came into contact with me today report that I had a positive and optimistic disposition?
- Did I refrain from all gossip today? Even if I was mad at someone, did I prevent myself from talking about that person to a colleague, parent, or staff member?
- Did I take advantage of someone to get something I wanted? Did I abuse my privilege as school leader?
- If I made a mistake today, did I own up to it, or did I try to cover it up?
Perhaps there are many other questions one may wish to add to their personal trustworthy leader checklist, but this can be a good start to encourage self-reflection and transparency. When we think again about the hourglass, we recognize that the leader is the voice of one stakeholder group to another. And that voice is a powerful tool that can be used for good or for personal gain. But let’s now reflect on the more traditional visual perspective of leadership: a hierarchy, in which the leader is at the top.
Throughout history, and across cultures, leaders have great privilege but even greater responsibility. It is possibly forgivable for two colleagues to talk negatively in confidence about a third colleague who was wronged them. But a leader is different. Sure, it can be lonely, and indeed, it requires an abnormally high degree of self-control. But everyone in a school community counts on the principal to be a pillar of ethics, compassion, and honesty. Even those self-appointed stakeholder group representatives who rush to the new principal to see if they can get what they want from a vulnerable new leader can be respectful of a trustworthy leader’s unfavorable decision.
How long does this period last? Well, while it could take months to build, the hard reality is that this period never ends. But for all the school principals I know and have known over the decades, when that trust is built, it is liberating for the leader. It is immensely satisfying to be able to make decisions that all stakeholder groups respect, even if the decision is not in their favor. It is empowering to be free from cover-ups, personal interests, and negative talk. Most importantly, it allows a school leader to get to the real work of school leadership without constraint.
Being caught in the middle of different groups, perspectives, needs, and interests is never easy. But school leaders who build trust over time end up finding that their role in the intersection of the hourglass is satisfying and logical. Most importantly, they will find that they can provoke very high levels of positive and productive change within their schools.
(1) Leithwood, K., Sun, J., & Schumacker, R. (2020). How school leadership influences student learning: A test of “The four paths model”. Educational Administration Quarterly, 56(4), 570-599.
Dr. Ted Purinton is the Founding Dean of the Sharjah Education Academy. Previously as Senior Education Advisor for the Economic Development Board of Bahrain (seconded as C.E./Dean of the Bahrain Teachers College), Purinton doubled the size of the college and expanded its programs and consultative capacity for educational reform within Bahrain.
Previous to that, he served as Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the American University in Cairo (AUC), as well as Associate Provost for the University (AUC’s senior internationalization officer, also responsible for academic administration and strategic initiatives); Chair of the Department of Educational Administration at National Louis University in Chicago; Associate at the Center for Literacy, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory; programs administrator at the Paramount Unified School District in Los Angeles; and a high school/intermediate school English teacher in Los Angeles.
He holds a doctorate in educational policy, planning, and administration from the University of Southern California. Purinton has served on multiple boards for various schools and other educational institutions and has consulted for a wide range of educational organizations and governments on issues ranging from organizational restructuring to teacher professional development, university budget allocation to tertiary system redesign, and more.