Trust: The Winning Leadership Quality for Successful School Reform 
Leadership Quality |school leaders

By Dr. Toby A. Travis

High levels of trust in school leaders are quite easy to recognize. However, defining — let alone developing — that trust is complex. It’s like the construction of a large suspension bridge. While simple in concept (a structure to connect one place to another), it remains complex and substantial in the building and maintenance.

The varied and complex components of leadership must be in place to ensure high levels of trust. If a school leader or leadership team lacks any one of these components, trust levels will be diminished or non-existent. As a result, the bridge to school improvement will be difficult to cross at best and impossible to navigate at worst.

For example, a school leader may be skilled in establishing efficient and meaningful systems to support excellence throughout the school. But, if they don’t value collaboration and faculty input, this leader won’t be trusted.

The essential element for ensuring school improvement is via the development of trusted leaders. High levels of trust in educational institutions and their leaders result in many benefits, including:

  • Greater financial stability
  • Fewer behavior management issues
  • Healthier parent and community relations
  • Increased rates of faculty and staff retention
  • Higher levels of student achievement

Conversely, research shows that low levels of trust in educational institutions and their leaders result in adverse effects — including:

  • Waning support of parents and the broader community
  • Increased operational costs
  • Adversarial attitudes and behavior by students, teachers, parents, and community members
  • Lower retention rates of qualified and committed faculty and staff
  • Diminished achievement levels of students in both academic and co-curricular pursuits

Despite the known outcomes related to the level of trust with school leaders, few schools intentionally invest time, energy, focus, and resources to develop trust in their leaders. Yet, trust is the winning leadership quality for successful school reform.

Consider these four essential qualities that school leaders must possess to gain high levels of trust.

1. Adheres to beliefs and values

A school leader’s public reputation is based on the leader’s integrity and moral fiber. Likewise, a school’s reputation is based on the character and quality of the totality of individuals who make up the school. The human element of the school (teachers, coaches, administrators, students, staff, and parents) defines the school’s integrity. Over time and with intentionality, a few school leaders can shape a school’s reputation (Doorley and Garcia, 2015).

When leadership decisions are public, positive, and grounded in the core values of the school’s mission, reputation is enhanced. Conversely, reputation is diminished when decisions and actions are made behind closed doors, are negative, and are motivated by priorities other than those born out of the school’s primary focus (mission fulfillment).

A stable, positive, healthy, and progressive reputation is essential to sustained school success and fulfilling the mission and vision of the school (Moore, 2009). School leaders must ensure that decisions on every level are processed and operated through the core beliefs and values of the school. A school’s public reputation and leadership are defined by the principles seen and experienced by the school community.

2. Solves problems and provides resources 

Ensuring that teachers are well-resourced begins in the school’s business office and involves preparing and managing the budget to make quality resources available, timely and reliable. The budget is the single most powerful instrument for either high levels of credibility in school leaders or destroying their credibility completely.

The budget’s role is quite diverse. Multiple and fundamental purposes of the successful functioning of a school are accomplished through both the budget process and the actual budget itself. The budget, therefore, can be viewed as four distinct documents: a policy document, an operations guide, a financial planner, and a communications tool.

Former U.S. President Harry S. Truman said, “Budget figures reveal far more about proposed policy than speeches.” When stakeholders view the school budget, their trust in the leader is primarily measured by where and how school resources are allocated.

3. Manages continuous change

To maintain trust when going through a difficult transition, school leaders face two significant challenges.

Committed leaders build trust by helping stakeholders see and know that change has direction and is positive and progressive, rather than negative or regressive. Demonstrating ownership of change builds trust. Intentional changes owned by school leaders and the unexpected changes that come their way can all be opportunities for the school to fulfill its mission and vision.

4. Embraces distributed leadership

School leaders must believe that their team of talented professionals have the potential for thinking, being creative, acting with maturity, and accepting responsibility. Therefore, the school leader can confidently distribute the responsibility of carrying out educational improvements. Further, the leader can or should entrust the team members with a prominent voice in defining, planning, and enacting the steps to improvement.

Teachers should have as much autonomy as possible to fulfill the shared beliefs and values regarding education and pedagogical practices and a full-fledged commitment to the mission and vision of the school. Trusted leaders value their teachers’ expertise and deliberately seek opportunities to solicit input.

Successful schools consist of faculty and staff members who feel ownership, believe they are trusted in their roles and possess clear expectations and resources to fulfill those expectations when tasks are delegated. Thus, the practice of delegation also fuels innovation. In addition, delegation indicates that school leaders trust in their teams.

Abraham Lincoln once observed, “The people, when rightly and fully trusted, will return the trust.”

His observation emphasizes how trust is a two-way street. The more leaders trust those they supervise, the more employees extend trust to their leadership. A consistent focus on developing trust results in leaders who expand their influence, improve morale and ensure continuous school improvement.

Dr. Toby A. Travis is the founder of TrustED®, a framework for school improvement focused on developing trusted leaders. The application of his research serves as the basis for the TrustED® School Leader 360 Assessment, which schools worldwide utilize to inform school improvement initiatives. In addition, he is an Executive Consultant with the Global School Consulting Group, an Adjunct Professor for the International Graduate Program of Educators for the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and an experienced teacher and administrator of PS-12 schools. His new book is TrustED – The Bridge to School Improvement. Learn more at

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