Trusting relationships

The Educational Leadership Capability Framework (Teaching Council, 2018, p.5) says that building and sustaining high trust relationships is the heart of effective leadership.

"High trust relationships exist when leaders are respected for their deep educational knowledge, their actions and values, and the way they engage respectfully with others with empathy and humility, fostering openness in discussions.”

Gilbert (2015) argues that trusting relationships are fundamental to collaboration, particularly in times of change and complexity. She says (p.12):

“Leading ‘strong’ collaboration involves building a commitment to moving ahead together. It involves making it possible for everyone involved to participate in robust, collegial debate in which everything is up for discussion, and disagreement, uncertainty and failure are expected.”

We need to establish mutual trust for robust debate to be productive. 

Leader as host

A useful way to think about how leaders might build and sustain trust during times of change or crisis, in order to move forward together, is suggested by Chorn (2013, cited in Leadership Development Centre, 2016, p.13). He uses the metaphor of a leader being a host – as opposed to being a hero.

What makes a good host? If you consider a successful gathering you have attended, you may think about aspects such as: 

  • the way you were invited
  • the language your host used, such as to greet you and welcome you into the group
  • how your comfort was considered
  • how manaakitanga was extended to you
  • how empathetic the host was.


Empathy is key to trusting relationships.

Listening deeply to what people are saying, and listening with a curious ear is critical (Garvey Berger & Johnson, 2020). Be curious about such things as:

  • the other person’s feelings and point of view
  • how they are responding to the current situation
  • what you might learn from the person you are talking to
  • how this conversation might develop your growing understanding about how to move forward.

In times of complexity and change, it is useful to:

  • admit that you don’t know the answers, but that you are learning rapidly.
  • repeat key messages (Garvey Berger & Johson, 2020).


Finally, as a good host, to sustain trust, it is important to stay connected and involved (Chorn, 2013). Involve others as co-hosts. Keep in contact to learn about: 

  • how people are feeling
  • what they are enjoying success with
  • what barriers exist to building on successes.

Reflective questions

  • How might you use the skills of a good host to build and sustain a high trust environment?
  • How do you show empathy towards staff during a time of challenge or change? 
  • How do you stay connected and involved with teachers during a time of challenge or change?


Garvey Berger, J. and Johnston, K. (2020). Curiously blunt, or bluntly curious?. Cultivating Leadership

Garvey Berger, J. and Johnston, K. (2020). Leadership on the edge of chaos. Cultivating Leadership

Gilbert, J. (2015). Leading in collaborative, complex education systems, pp.8-14, Leadership for Communities of Learning: Five think pieces (PDF), Education Council

Leadership Development Centre. (2016). Toolkit: Good leadership in complex environments (PDF)

Teaching Council. (2018). Educational Leadership Capability Framework.

Related pages

Building and sustaining high trust relationships

Leading in a complex world

Principals as leaders in a post-disaster setting

Creating and maintaining school cultures in times of change

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