We’ve all heard the adage that “trust is earned”. It’s an oft-uttered phrase, but one that I believe needs to be examined. Walter C. Wright knows trust well, afterall his hobby is mountaineering, a pastime that absolutely requires trust in one’s teammates. In his book “Don’t Step on the Rope” he claims that “the risk of relationship gives trust in faith” (p. 10). What he means, I believe, is that inherent in relationships, at least healthy ones, is a certain amount of risk. By engaging in relationships with others we risk hurt, disappointment, criticism, etc. But to begin in relationship in the first place requires a step of trust. If our starting point is that trust is earned, we limit our ability to engage fully in the relationships that will form the core of our families, organizations, and friendships.
Imagine a scenario where you are hired to perform an important task in an organization. Once you are hired, though, it becomes clear that your manager is not allocating you any trust. She constantly checks up on you and gives only the easiest assignments. You feel stifled and unappreciated. Worse, you get stale and find it hard to be motivated to do better. It doesn’t work. Relationships begin with a leap of trust. Trust is strengthened, bolstered, fostered, and perhaps even lost, but our posture as leaders shouldn’t be to cautiously dole our trust – we must start with trust.
Wright goes on to outline that “An effective team focused on results and relationships is powered by trust. Trust is the lifeblood of relationship and thus the fuel of teams” (p. 10) Trust is empowering, but it is wisely noted by Sinek that “the true social benefit of trust must be reciprocal. One-way trust is not beneficial to the individual or the group” (p. 75). Trust needs to be a two-way street, and as usual, must either begin with the leader, or be modeled by the leader.
The implications of this for the leadership we show in our schools are large. How do you show a first year teacher at your school that you trust him or her without having seen their full body of work? How do you step into a relationship of trust with the new Board Chair who you’ve only known for 2 months? Relationships and teams flourish when trust is strong. How are you as a leader going to build and foster relationships that begin with trust?
 It should be noted that on the same page Wright goes on to say that “trust is essential for cohesion and community. It is both given and earned.” In this last point, I obviously disagree with him. However, I can think of a circumstance where a relationship is able to blossom over time with someone who we were unable to trust from the start because of extenuating circumstances. In this case, trust can definitely be earned, but I don’t believe it is the starting point of normal and healthy relationships.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don't. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Wright, Walter C. (2005). Don't Step on the Rope!: Reflections on leadership, relationships, and teamwork. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster.