John West-Burnham

Educational Leadership Development

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Leading Through Trust

Of all the qualities of a systems leader trust is probably the most important. It is difficult to envisage any aspect of their work that is not profoundly dependent on trust – indeed it could be argued that it would be impossible for them to work without trust. In broad social terms trust is an elusive quality. Layard and Dunn (2009) quote the following figures of responses to the proposition that ‘Most people can be trusted’.

1959 56%
1981 43%
1990 44%
1999 29%

. . . there has been a decline in the sense of fellowship which holds society together. This has eroded the bonds of trust between us, and children suffer as a result. There are, however, countries in which trust has not declined. In Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands around two-thirds of people believe that most people can be trusted – twice as many as in Britain and the USA. (Layard and Dunn 2009 p162)

In the survey National Accounts for Well-being in Europe published in 2009 ( The UK comes 20th out of 22 nations in terms of levels of trust. For the 16-24 age group people in the UK reported the lowest levels of trust and belonging anywhere in Europe – only Bulgaria and Estonia had similar levels of response.

It would clearly be difficult, if not impossible, to change the culture of any society in the short term. However there may be a case for arguing that the experience at community and organizational level can be changed.

Leaders should be trustworthy, and this worthiness is an important virtue. Without trust leaders lose credibility. This loss poses difficulties to leaders as they seek to call people to respond to their responsibilities. The painful alternative is to be punitive, seeking to control people through manipulation or coercion. But trust is a virtue in other ways too. The building of trust is an organizational quality. –Once embedded in the culture of the school, trust works to liberate people to be their best, to give others their best, and to take risks. (Sergiovanni (2005) p90)


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