Trust in Leadership: Leadership Development with Dr Paul Browning

Dr. Paul Browning has a knack for engendering trust rather quickly, and he clearly embodies the practices he has developed in all of his work with teachers. His Australian charm and ease were quick to welcome us at the start of the workshop, and I was eager to see how a workshop on trust 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. Paul is not only an experienced Headteacher of twenty years but had undertook research for a doctorate exploring leadership. Through interviews and observation he sought to document the key characteristics of transformational leaders: the kind of leaders that were trusted by their school communities. He focused on the four most trusted leaders he found – not only showing through his research that trust could be measured, but that he could identify the actions of leaders that promoted trust. These ten practices of trusted, transformational leaders shaped his book ‘Compelling Leadership’ and the structure of the workshop: these are practices that can be observed but most importantly learned and practised. You could become a more trusted leader by employing them.

His workshop for the Chartered College of Teaching, in partnership with the Tower Hamlets Education Trust, was an eye-opener, particularly for me as a middle leader who is yet to experience the highs (and lows) of senior management. Many of those at the workshop were headteachers and I admired them for making the time to attend when probably in their heads would be one-hundred-and-one other things they needed to attend to back at their respective schools. Presented with an attractive booklet on the desks 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 would look at what makes a leader someone you would want to follow and agreeing the characteristics of leaders we admire. Lots of group discussion, and I welcomed the honesty of the leaders I shared a table with. They were remarkably open about their views on their role as a leader. Astonishingly there was little divergence about what was considered the key quality of a trusted leader: honesty. This was consistent across the whole room.

‘Trusted leaders are open and make themselves vulnerable by owning mistakes and asking for advice’, writes Paul in the workbook. When I was completing the ‘vulnerability checklist’ in the workbook I was inspired by the discussions to be honest and I was surprised by how difficult it can be to receive feedback, as well as to admit confusion of an issue. Paul made it evident that followers needed to feel they knew a leader as a human being, and human beings are vulnerable. By reflecting on our vulnerabilities as leaders we would be better placed to engender trust in our followers. But what is trust? Paul explained that it is a social construct: we find it difficult to define what trust is, but we find it easy to explain what mistrust is and looks like. Admitting mistakes to our followers 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 as my table chose seemingly irrelevant photos of a hand print, rowers, relay team and my choice of a man in mid-flight wearing rollerblades. The deputy headteacher explained that the hand print represented the idea leaders ‘leave a mark’, and the headteacher explained his choice of the rowers expressed the importance of ‘working together for the same goal’. The headteacher that selected the relay team explained her choice 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 seek to 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 good leaders do inspire a trust to do whatever they think is needed to achieve goals.

Coaching courses I had undertaken in the past had always stressed the important of repeating what you heard, and making use of the language of the coachee. I assumed Paul would expect the same behaviour when he asked us to complete a listening activity on our tables. The listening activity in a group of four is well-worth replicating in CPD time in schools, as it sparked lots of good discussion. One person spoke about a topic for two minutes, another person wrote down the facts and opinions they heard in the talk, another only documented the emotions expressed and another the values implied by what the speaker said. The speaker talked about their new puppy. Surprisingly this story fueled some powerful reflections. I realised after I had undertaken the role of documenting the facts and opinions from the talk that in my attempt to write down verbatim what was said I didn’t look up at the speaker once. When we’re writing down in a meeting to capture the ‘facts’ are we really mindful of the person saying them? 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. They commented on tone, and aspects of facial expression with lots of detail. It was the values that were most important: when the deputy headteacher who was logging the values expressed by the speaker spoke these values back to them, remarkably there was a shared sense 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 the listener understood the values expressed and was able to express that by saying what they heard.

The workshop was peppered with personal reflections from Paul, and this vulnerability to share so openly instilled a collective openness from the group. Paul’s rubric for assessing trust and transformational leadership practice was received well. He introduced the ten practices individually – and we had space to discuss and reflect individually as well as in groups. These ten practices were the result of his research that showed trusted leaders produced better outcomes for students. Now 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 remarkably I didn’t even go and grab any cake that was supplied for the participants. Now that had to be a good sign that this workshop was rather good.

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