School & District Management Opinion

School Leaders Build Trust by Inviting Others to the Table

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 19, 2017 4 min read
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Trust and integrity are two facets of leadership that have been eroding. The result is a “swamp mentality.” All leaders are in it or precariously on the edge of falling into it. The absence of those qualities feed a voracious hunger for facts and details among the interested and a desire to cover ears and eyes among those who are overwhelmed. School, business, and political leaders have gone from being trustworthy to having all actions merit suspicion. Even total transparency doesn’t reassure sometimes. Blogs, editorials, and 24 hour parlance about news has blurred the distinction between opinion and fact. They are partially responsible for an environment in which it becomes difficult to distinguish, as in olden days, fact from fiction or in contemporary terms, facts from fake news. Citizens find themselves, simultaneously, wanting both more and less.

The public’s hunger for information is a good thing. An informed public can make informed decisions as they vote for their representatives, or school budgets, or capital projects. But, when motivated by a lack of trust, it can drive demand for extraordinarily detailed information. John C. Bogle, famous investment expert and founder of The Vanguard Group recently explained his view on the response to eroded trust in leadership in an interview with Michael Smerconish.

In the interview, Bogle raises the issue about an uninformed citizenry voting on issues that affect the greater good. He asks, “Have we become a nation shifting from acting like a Republic to acting like a Democracy?” That is another one of those oft lost distinctions wrestled by our founders. We are, after all, a democracy, right, and we treasure that democratic form of government, right? Well, yes, maybe and in someplaces. In a democracy, when each voice has a direct role in decisions, a majority of the public voting rules. The popular decision may not always be the best one. Don’t we know that to be true? At state and local government levels, we are really a republic where elected representatives make decisions for us. Who knows enough about healthcare or education or the environment or tax laws and the implications of all of these? We vote for those who can study issues and to whom we extend the authority to make informed decision on our behalf.

Perhaps it is that we have fallen for the marketing of cable TV. They call themselves news channels and broadcast 24/7 and we attribute the word news to them. Our mistake. They call themselves “fair and balanced” or “most trusted name in news” yet they are neither. News is infiltrated with opinions and we have not learned how to teach children or adults to pull them apart. It has disrupted even our ability for healthy dialogue. We believe the speaker and do not search for the kernel of truth that allows for common ground. School leaders may benefit from this environment but those who have suffered a loss because they just couldn’t get the facts heard and valued have a painful story to tell.

Trust is a Product of Leadership, Not an Ingredient

Integrity is the basis of trust, which is not as much an ingredient of leadership as it is a product. It is the one quality that cannot be acquired, but must be earned. It is given by co-workers and followers, and without it, the leader can’t function (Bennis. p. 35)

Much of what happens in schools is a reflection of what is happening in society. Mistrust of leadership has risen but schools and districts have an advantage that state and national leaders do not. Most schools and districts are small enough that reaching out to the public who supports them is possible if the leader makes it a priority. Although there is an expected annual effort to do this during budget season and board election times, school leaders can make themselves a part of the communities they lead. It isn’t just about the inclusion of members of the community. It is about presence. It isn’t just about Rotary or Kiwanis. It is also about church dinners and nonprofit fund raisers. It is business and police. It is clergy and senior citizens and parents and preschool providers. Is it too much to ask? Yes, it can be but it makes the trust difference. And if the leader isn’t in all those places, someone with the leader’s story can be. Expanding the base matters when issues are big and hot so the ground work has to happen when things are going well and there are moments to breathe and think.

Outreach helps. Posting facts on a website or sending tweets cannot be the only extension into the community. We trust those we know and those to whom we seem to matter. Whether it is a decision about schedules, budget, trips, clubs, discipline, or a response to individual problems, the trust a leader needs has to be earned. “Trust, of course, cannot be acquired, but can only be given” (Bennis. p. 133). It is earned, certainly, by acting with a moral compass aimed at doing what is right for all and it is also earned by caring for and reaching out to all, not some. It is, after all, the disaffected and the jaundiced who need the value brought by school leaders the most. There are those who trust easily and want ot trust their leaders. For them leaders need only be trustworthy and accessible. The work of building trust lies elsewhere, among those whose lives have taught them that leaders don’t care about them and that leaders serve others with whom they share more commonality. There are more people who are paying attention now. It is important not to lose this moment. Rather it is the time to go out to them, learn their names and listen to their stories, even if it’s hard. Then, they might respond affirmatively when you invite them in.

Bennis, W. (2009) On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia, Pa.: Basic Books

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

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.

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.