Education Opinion

Leadership Decisions Produce or Undermine Trust

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 01, 2018 3 min read
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How do you determine truth? When leaders are asked to make a determination about an incident between adults, between adults and children, or children and children how certain can one be? Yet, confidence in the outcome is expected. The decision made by the leader is either accepted as well researched, fair and factual or dismissed as a biased conclusion. It is foolish to think that resolutions of conflicts are absolutely perfect. Each participant has their own truth, and the leader, hers. The leader draws upon an ability to see clearly, be fair, listen carefully, and operate always with the hihgest integrity.

Two stories come to mind. The first was at the retirement of a beloved Dean of Students. He had taught and been Dean for over 30 years and was known as the fairest, most respected educator. At his retirement party, while sitting with a small group of trusted colleagues, he mentioned his proudest investigation was of the time a student placed an M30 in the toilet in the boys’ bathroom and blew it out of the wall. A knowing nod came from those around him when he mentioned the name of the young man, who was now in his 20’s and had graduated. A knowing nod came from everyone ... that is, except for one teacher. He had been a student at the time and said, in surprise, “That isn’t who did it!”. He then told the story as he knew it.

The second story is about a fight that took place in a gym in front of the home team, the visiting team, all the people in the bleachers, teachers, coaches, and refs. One boy ran up the bleachers, pulled another down to the floor during half time and pinned him to the ground. All reports from the adults was that the boy pulled out of the stands did nothing to provoke the event and didn’t strike back at the instigator. The police were called and took a report. The boy’s parents were called to report how well the boy responded to the attack. The truth is that while pulled to the floor, the victim had actually landed a punch to the face of the perpetrator. The evidence showed up as a black eye noticed when the student returned from suspension. With everyone watching, they saw what they wanted to see. Certainly, the instigator should have been disciplined. The point of interest here is the witnesses’ biased observation.

In most cases when settling differences between people, there is little chance for a clear agreement. We gather all the evidence we can and accept that, in doing our best, we might never be sure. Even between two people the truth can be amorphous and obscure. Pursuit of truth is a wise person’s effort with careful listening and insightful questions. How things are seen, said, and understood vary. When the decision of the leader is completed, it is hoped that the response from the rest of the organization is support and understanding. An environment in which a leader is trusted will take root only after building a record of thorough and well informed decision making.

In their book Dialogue: Rediscovering the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard write about trust. They correctly observe:

Developing trust is one of the greatest challenges facing you as a leader. Typical conversational patterns in organizations are built on competition, fear of authority, and survival of the most politically astute. There is no magic formula for building trust. But an unswerving dedication to listening, curiosity, suspension of judgment, and nondefensiveness will see you a long way down the road (p 180).

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.