Dr Paul Browning has a knack for engendering trust rather quickly, and he clearly embodies the practices he has developed in his work with teachers. His workshop about Trust in Leadership for the Chartered College of Teaching was held in April 2018, in partnership with the Tower Hamlets Education’s Professional Development Centre. It was an eye-opener, particularly for me as a middle leader who is yet to experience the highs (and lows) of senior management.
Paul is an experienced Headteacher of 20 years and has undertaken research for his doctorate exploring leadership. Through interviews and observation, he sought to document the key characteristics of transformational leaders – the kind of leaders who are trusted by their school communities. He focused on the four most trusted leaders he found, showing both that trust could be measured, and that he could identify the actions of leaders who promoted trust.
These 10 practices of trusted, transformational leaders shaped his book Compelling Leadership. They also provided the structure of the workshop as they can be observed and, most importantly, learned. I was eager to see how the session would develop: I pictured group activities involving a variety of props and lots of emotional discussions. Whilst there were a few well-chosen props, the workshop was fast-paced and more research-informed than I expected. It was also peppered with personal reflections from Paul, and this vulnerability to share so openly instilled a collective openness from the group.
Many of the attendees were headteachers and I admired them for making the time to attend when there must have been 101 other things in their heads that needed their attention. Presented with an attractive booklet when we arrived, I expected this to be something that would be trying to sell me something. I was wrong. It was a workbook.
After Paul’s engaging opener – a personal tale of two leaders – he asked us to fill in the first page, ‘The Real Me’. Gulp. Surely being a leader was about hiding feelings and pretending to be all-knowing and strong-minded, keeping the ‘real me’ hidden? Paul was encouraging a moment of self-reflection before we looked at what makes a leader someone you want to follow and agreeing the characteristics of leaders we admire. I welcomed the honesty of the leaders I shared a table with – they were remarkably open about their roles. Astonishingly there was little divergence about what was considered the key quality of a trusted leader: honesty.
‘Trusted leaders are open and make themselves vulnerable by owning mistakes and asking for advice,’ writes Paul in the workbook. Followers need to feel that they know a leader as a human being, and human beings are vulnerable. When I was completing the ‘vulnerability checklist’ in the workbook, I was inspired by the discussions to be honest and surprised by how difficult it can be to receive feedback, and admit confusion. By reflecting on our vulnerabilities as leaders we would be better placed to engender trust in our followers. Paul explained that trust is a social construct: we find it difficult to define what trust is, but easy to explain what mistrust is. Admitting our mistakes is the first step towards building trust.
The photo activity – choosing a photo that represented our view on good leaders – was very useful. I was surprised that the photos were able to fuel such interesting discussions. My group chose a hand print, rowers, relay team and – my choice – a man in mid-flight wearing rollerblades. One deputy headteacher explained that the hand print represented the idea leaders ‘leave a mark’, and another headteacher said his choice of the rowers expressed the importance of ‘working together for the same goal’. The headteacher that selected the relay team explained she was acknowledging that everyone had an individual part to play, and in a relay race if an individual had a difficult run, the next runner would support them. My choice was an attempt at humour, but I genuinely felt a good leader would inspire me to do whatever it takes: if that meant putting on a helmet and rollerblades and doing a jump, I’d do it. Well, probably not that, but my point was that good leaders inspire a trust to do whatever they think is needed to achieve goals.
Then Paul asked us to complete a listening activity with a group of four on our tables. My previous coaching experience had always stressed the importance of repeating what you heard, and making use of the language of the coachee. I assumed Paul would expect the same, but I was wrong. One person spoke about a topic for two minutes, another person wrote down the facts and opinions they heard, another only documented the emotions expressed and the final listener wrote down the values implied by what the speaker said.
The speaker talked about their new puppy and, surprisingly, this fueled some powerful reflections. I realised that in my focus on writing down the facts and opinion verbatim, I didn’t look at the speaker once. When we’re writing down notes in a meeting to capture the ‘facts’, are we really mindful of what the person is saying? I hadn’t noticed their facial expressions, and was less focused on their tone of voice. These features were captured more readily by the headteacher assuming the role of documenting the feelings and emotions.
But it was the values that were most important. When the deputy headteacher who was logging the speaker’s values spoke these values back to them, there was a shared sense that they really understood the person in a deeper way. Paul explained that what effective listeners perceive isn’t verbatim what the speaker said: it is that they understood the values expressed and can express these by saying what they heard. This listening activity is well-worth replicating in CPD time in schools, as it sparked lots of good discussion.
Paul’s rubric for assessing trust and transformational leadership practice was received well. He introduced the 10 practices individually – and we had space to discuss and reflect individually, as well as in groups. These practices were the result of his research that showed trusted leaders produced better outcomes for students. This had to be the most persuasive justification for leaders aspiring to increase trust in their communities.
I enjoyed the workshop immensely, not only for meeting leaders who were further up the ladder and leading whole-school communities, but to have the time to reflect and share. Paul skillfully facilitated this open, honest sharing at a good pace. There wasn’t a dull moment in the three hours, and I didn’t even eat any of the cake. Now that had to be a good sign that this workshop was rather good!
Dr Paul Browning has been a Headmaster for 20 years. He believes that trust is the fundamental resource for successful leadership and a healthy school culture. His PhD research focused on the practices that engender trust and he is the author of Compelling Leadership: The importance of trust and how to get it (available as a free download).