Role Call

An enduring trend in America has been a declining trust in leadership and each other. While local school leaders are among the most trusted of all public officials, the Pew Research Center reports that 64 percent of Americans sense a fading trust in one another, which is surely felt by principals throughout the nation.

The Importance of Trust

Author Stephen M.R. Covey calls trust, “the one thing that changes everything” and “the key leadership competency of the new global economy.” Covey’s writing focuses on business leaders but is also applicable to the people-oriented business of schooling—and is supported by educational researchers such as Douglas Reeves, who identifies trust as one of the seven essential elements of successful school leadership. Simply put, positive change cannot be sustained without a strong sense of trust throughout the organization. Where there is doubt, cynicism, and fear, educators retreat to a classroom or an office. Where there is trust, educators assume the best intentions and capabilities of one another and are willing to share ideas and try new approaches in emotionally safe spaces. There are several imperatives to consider when seeking to foster trust throughout your school.

1. Seek First to Trust

Prospective school leaders often ask, “How do I get the staff to trust me?” I am reminded of the fifth point in Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where he advises readers to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Similarly, the seminal step in gaining the trust of others is to show that we, as leaders, trust them first. For many school leaders, this is a difficult challenge. Principals who are new to the job may struggle to relinquish control—which is a scary feeling at first—but failing to do so is a sign of mistrust that disempowers staff and squelches creativity.

School leaders should start the job and each new year assuming the good intentions and strong capabilities of their staff. I believe the vast majority of educators care deeply about what they do and strive to put forward their best effort for students each day. Recognizing that fact allows school leaders to interact differently with staff. We allow them to do their jobs—which allows us to do our jobs. Leaders who are unable to trust end up micromanaging, which detracts from our ability to complete our duties and hinders others from feeling empowered to complete theirs.

You might be asking, “What about those who aren’t doing their best for students each day?” Fear not—they will come to your attention soon enough, and a direct, dignified approach will build trust with them, too. To assess your own ability to trust, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I start each year and each day assuming the best intentions and capabilities of our staff?
  • How can I better demonstrate trust in the staff so they feel the confidence I have in them?

After you identify tangible examples, ask these same questions of others in your organization as a first step toward strengthening that foundation of trust.

2. Share the Load

Occasionally, I hear school leaders bemoan their 70-hour workweek. School leadership is undoubtedly more than a 40-hour per week job, but honest accounting would indicate it does not need to be an all-consuming one. One way to make the job more manageable is to trust your colleagues to do their work, encouraging innovation and experimentation, thereby cultivating new ideas and innovation on the front lines, rather than the front office.

I once spoke with a school principal who claimed to be working 16-hour days during the week, and 12-hour days on the weekend. My immediate thought was that there must be things that could and should be done by others. Rather than empowering the staff to make decisions and share responsibilities, the principal was unwittingly demonstrating mistrust in them by completing as many tasks as possible on her own. This is an unsustainable approach to leadership, which leads to resentment of one’s job, lack of work-life balance, and a dysfunctional organization.

If you are a leader who feels overwhelmed by the time it takes you to do your job, consider the level of trust you have placed in others by asking yourself these two questions:

  • Where might I be too controlling?
  • What am I doing that I could trust to be done by others without my direct input or oversight?

Once you’ve generated your list, relieve yourself of tasks better done by others, and empower them to take ownership of items in their areas of expertise.

3. Make It Someone Else’s Idea

Collaborative leaders invite the larger school community to craft the school’s mission, core values, strategic plan, and programming. Successful leaders present the data that suggest a better way of doing business and allow the ideas for that new direction to come from others.

I learned this lesson through experience. As a fairly new principal, I hoped to retain the small-school feel of our fast-growing high school by implementing grade-level teaming, starting with the ninth grade. I had the research to back the plan and a sound organizational format for making it happen. What I didn’t have was input from staff, which led to a long, arduous deliberative process with many roadblocks. Fortunately, a group of ninth-grade teachers became engaged enough in the proposal to make it “theirs.” They took on the planning, identified staff concerns, offered solutions, and worked closely with leadership to bring the vision to fruition. Had they not taken ownership, the idea would have collapsed, but with their energy behind the plan, staff buy-in was made possible, and our students benefited.

I learned this lesson through experience. As a fairly new principal, I hoped to retain the small-school feel of our fast-growing high school by implementing grade-level teaming, starting with the ninth grade. I had the research to back the plan and a sound organizational format for making it happen. What I didn’t have was input from staff, which led to a long, arduous deliberative process with many roadblocks. Fortunately, a group of ninth-grade teachers became engaged enough in the proposal to make it “theirs.” They took on the planning, identified staff concerns, offered solutions, and worked closely with leadership to bring the vision to fruition. Had they not taken ownership, the idea would have collapsed, but with their energy behind the plan, staff buy-in was made possible, and our students benefited.

  • When I have an idea for improving our schools, how do I give others a voice in critiquing or improving that idea?
  • Am I willing to let my ideas be adjusted and credited to another individual or the larger group?

Am I willing to let my ideas be adjusted and credited to another individual or the larger group?

4. Take the Heat

In From Leading to Succeeding, Douglas Reeves states that one of the key components of building personal trust with staff is to “acknowledge one’s mistakes quickly and openly.” As a young principal, I remember feeling that admission of a mistake would be seen as a sign of incompetence. What I have come to realize—after 24 years as a school leader and thousands of mistakes—is that not acknowledging those errors is a greater sign of ineptitude and insecurity. Leaders should accept responsibility not only for their own mistakes, but also for those made by others in the organization. Effective leaders address mistakes and performance concerns behind closed doors with the individuals needing redirection, but once the door is open, the leader publicly accepts responsibility for errors made at any level. That act creates greater trust—and loyalty—from constituents throughout the school.

Still, accepting responsibility itself is not enough; leaders must also be willing to learn from their mistakes. Admissions and apologies for past errors ring hollow if the leader does nothing to avoid similar mistakes moving forward.
Think about the trust and confidence you have in yourself by contemplating these questions:

  • When was the last time I stood in front of the staff and said, “My mistake”?
  • What were the last three mistakes I made, and what did I learn from them?

What were the last three mistakes I made, and what did I learn from them?

Moving Forward

As a former athlete, I recall one of my coaches consistently telling us, “You are never the same player two days in a row—you are either better or worse than you were the day before—it’s up to you.” The same is true of our schools and our leadership; no two days are exactly the same. It is up to you, the school leader, to make each day better than the day before. Without trust, the school is stagnant—or worse. By trusting your staff, sharing the load, distributing credit, and owning the mistakes you and others make, you can begin to develop the trust necessary to bring about continual improvement.


Andrew Dolloff, PhD, is the superintendent of schools at the Yarmouth School Department in Yarmouth, ME, and serves as an advisory board member of educational leadership at the University of Southern Maine.


Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Collaborative Leadership

When principals empower other school leaders, teachers, staff members, and students to lead, they increase leadership capacity within their schools. When principals work collaboratively, they enable decision making that is informed by diverse perspectives and implementation that is enabled by buy-in, providing stronger learning opportunities for students. As a school leader, you can cultivate collaborative leadership in several ways by employing the following strategies:

  • Encouraging staff members and students to step into leadership roles
  • Trusting and supporting staff members, students, and parents when they take calculated risks and initiate ideas aligned with the school’s vision, mission, and values
  • Creating structures that allow staff members to work together

Collaborative Leadership is part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.