The Research Behind The TrustED 360 School Leadership Assessment

“Men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied, men of power are feared, but only men of character are trusted.” – Zig Ziglar

Pillars and Responsibilities

It is generally assumed that trust is a soft skill, although research findings clearly and repeatedly demonstrate it must be intentionally developed. Yet, for some this is still elusive and intangible. David Horsager, author of the best-selling business leadership book, The Trust Edge, emphasizes, “Trust is not a soft skill. It is a measurable competency that brings dramatic results. It can be built into an organization’s strategy, goals, and culture.”[1] He goes on to illustrate that, “trust is tangible, learnable, and measurable. Trust is not simply a dish in your leadership buffet. It is the table holding up the smorgasbord of talent demonstrated by your team every day.”[2]

For many years, Horsager has assisted a wide-range of companies, organizations, and leaders to develop this measurable competency – whether Fortune 500 companies or small non-profit ministries.

Major Trust Research Findings

One of the most sought-out authorities on trust in the world today, Horsager has condensed and organized his company’s years of research into eight categories or pillars. These are a framework for identifying the essential elements of trust, which history’s most successful leaders have possessed and demonstrated in quantifiable ways. Note that all eight of the pillars can be assessed, measured, and intentionally developed. They are not soft skills. The TrustED 360 School Leadership Assessment utilizes this framework to categorize strengths and areas for development.

The Eight Pillars of Trust

  1. Clarity: People trust the clear and mistrust the ambiguous.
  2. Compassion: People trust those who care beyond themselves.
  3. Character: People trust those who do what is right over what is easy.
  4. Competency: People trust those who stay fresh, relevant, and capable.
  5. Commitment: People trust those who stand through adversity.
  6. Connection: People trust those whom they identify as friends.
  7. Contribution: People trust those who produce results.
  8. Consistency: People trust those who are consistent.[3]

All Eight Must Be Present

According to research conducted by The Trust Edge Leadership Institute, effective leaders not only possess several of these qualities but also intentionally practice and visibly demonstrate all eight indicators. This is why Horsager refers to them as pillars. They are architectural structures working together to provide the foundation for trusted leadership – and they must all be present or the leader’s structure of trust will not stand.


Key Behaviors of Educational Leaders

Hundreds of studies and research projects have identified the attributes and behaviors of effective educational leadership in order to provide school leaders with insight into how best to fulfill their roles. The most significant and quantifiable work in this area was conducted by Robert Marzano, Timothy Waters, and Brian McNulty through their meta-analysis, which reviewed all research conducted over a thirty year period that met the following conditions:

  • The study involved K–12 students.
  • The study involved schools in the United States or situations that closely mirrored the culture of U.S. schools.
  • The study directly or indirectly examined the relationship between the leadership of the building principal and student academic achievement.
  • Academic achievement was measured by a standardized achievement test or a state test, or a composite index based on one or both of these.
  • Effect sizes in correlation form were reported or could be computed.[4]

The Twenty-One Responsibilities

Out of the meta-analysis, twenty-one categories of behavior emerged as essential commonalities of effective school leaders. Marzano, Walters, and McNulty labeled the behaviors responsibilities, suggesting that these are areas in which school leaders are responsible to address actively and intentionally. Again, these are not soft skills but rather competencies school leaders must master in order to make a positive impact on student achievement. Their effectiveness as a school leader depends on the extent to which they emulate the following attributes:

  1. Affirmation: [The leader]…recognizes and celebrates accomplishments and acknowledges failures.
  2. Change Agent: [The leader]…is willing to challenge and actively challenges the status quo.
  3. Contingent Rewards: [The leader]…recognizes and rewards individual accomplishments.
  4. Communication: [The leader]…establishes strong lines of communication with and among teachers and students.
  5. Culture: [The leader]…fosters shared beliefs and a sense of community and cooperation.
  6. Discipline: [The leader]…protects teachers from issues and influences that would detract from their teaching time or focus.
  7. Flexibility: [The leader]…adapts his or her leadership behavior to the needs of the current situation and is comfortable with dissent.
  8. Focus: [The leader]…establishes clear goals and keeps those goals in the forefront of the school’s attention.
  9. Ideals/Beliefs: [The leader]…communicates and operates from strong ideals and beliefs about schooling.
  10. Input: [The leader]…involves teachers in the design and implementation of important decisions and policies.
  11. Intellectual Stimulation: [The leader]…ensures faculty and staff are aware of the most current theories and practices and makes the discussion of these a regular aspect of the school’s culture.
  12. Involvement in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment: [The leader]…is directly involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices.
  13. Knowledge of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment: [The leader]…is knowledgeable about current curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices.
  14. Monitoring/Evaluating: [The leader]…monitors the effectiveness of school practices and their impact on student learning.
  15. Optimizer: [The leader]…inspires and leads new and challenging innovations.
  16. Order: [The leader]…establishes a set of standard operating procedures and routines.
  17. Outreach: [The leader]…is an advocate and spokesperson for the school to all stakeholders.
  18. Relationships: [The leader]…demonstrates an awareness of the personal aspects of teachers and staff.
  19. Resources: [The leader]…provides teachers with materials and professional development necessary for the successful execution of their jobs.
  20. Situational Awareness: [The leader]…is aware of the details and undercurrents in the running of the school and uses this information to address current and potential problems.
  21. Visibility: [The leader]…has quality contact and interactions with teachers and students. [5]

All 21 Must Be Present

Every leader is unique in personality and character. Some would argue leaders are born and not made. Research in this field argues the opposite. Trusted leaders are made… some, perhaps, more intentionally than others. Nevertheless, there are universal attributes that all leaders can develop.


The authors of the meta-analysis candidly make it clear that “these 21 responsibilities are not new findings within the literature on leadership… However, [these] 21 responsibilities provide some new insights into the nature of school leadership.”[6] They go on to note, “What is new to the leadership literature is the quantification of the relationship each responsibility has with student academic achievement.”[7] It is their conviction that student academic achievement serves as the key indicator in determining whether a school is, or is not, successful.

The perception that the style and practice of effective leadership has a direct correlation on any organization’s effectiveness and success has been common knowledge for generations. Yet, in recent years, the assumption that school leadership affects levels of student achievement has been challenged. Several studies suggested the direct or indirect impact of school leaders on an educational community’s essential activity and expectations (i.e. student achievement) was limited at best.[8]

The value of Marzano and his team’s work in conducting their comprehensive meta-analysis of all the data during the research period cannot be overstated. This work provides a broad and thorough response to critics suggesting that a school leader’s work has little direct correlation to student academic achievement. In fact, the results of their study conclude the correlation is not only direct but also substantial. By meticulously identifying points of correlation, the authors provide tremendous insight and guidance for both the experienced school leader, as well as those who aspire to that role.


A variety of leadership theories, theorists, and studies established a platform for their research and conclusions. The most significant leadership theories, connected especially to the area of school leadership, include the following:

  • Transactional Leadership: This style of leadership trades one thing for another – setting standards and expectations and then reacting to situations in order to maintain compliance with the same.
  • Transformational Leadership: This style of leadership values relationships and focuses on change management. These leaders model and develop followers into leaders. Arguably, this type of leadership is best suited for schools.
  • Instructional Leadership: Although frequently referenced in the literature, this categorization of leadership is not well defined. However,  four key elements appear in this type: (1) resource provider, (2) instructional resource, (3) communicator, and (4) visible presence. This type of leadership typically is blended with a transactional or transformational approach.

In recent years, several leadership theorists have majorly influenced what constitutes the essential elements of effective school leadership. Chief among these is James Collins, the author of Good To Great and Good To Great for The Social Sector.[9] Collins is world-renown for helping leaders move their organizations from engaging in good activity to focusing on what they are uniquely great at doing. Another is Richard Elmore, who argues effective instructional leaders are those who recognize they can only master a limited amount of expertise essential to leading a school. These leaders empower others with differing skill-sets so they can effectively lead the entire school community.[10] Heifetz and Linsky are also included in the top-tier list of leadership theorists who influenced the conclusions made from the meta-analysis. They championed the concept of adapting leadership styles and practices based on a school’s specific situation.[11] Some background knowledge, supported by the works of these theorists, is essential to fully unpacking the results of the meta-analysis.

Although the meta-analysis indicated school leaders have a measurable positive effect on student achievement, the studies reviewed had a wide range of results. In some, the correlation between school administrator leadership and student achievement levels was extensive and extremely positive. In others, correlations were low, and in some cases negative. In fact, others who have attempted a similar synthesis of the research have made different conclusions. The possible factors resulting in the discrepancies could include anything from moderator variables to levels of education. However, to date Marzano and his team are not aware of any research identifying specific factors or “straightforward explanations” for those variances. [12]


I would like to stress that Marzano and his team did not create the 21 responsibilities. The indicators were born out of the meta-analysis.

Again, we must point out that the 21 responsibilities identified in our meta-analysis are not new to the literature on leadership. Each one has been mentioned explicitly or implicitly by a host of researchers and theorists. Indeed, we refer to these behaviors as responsibilities because they are, or at least should be, standard operating procedures for effective principals. Perhaps this wide array of behaviors explains why it is so difficult to be an effective school leader. The variety of skills a leader must master is daunting indeed.[13]

Thus, when leadership trainers boil down the key elements of successful school leadership to only four or five indicators, they are far from hitting the mark. A truly effective and successful school leader has the required knowledge and a far more extensive skill-set.

A factor analysis provided insight showing exactly how the twenty-one responsibilities interact with each other and apply in a wide variety of school leadership settings; most notably identifying the variables between when school leaders lead through first-order changes and second-order changes. First-order changes refer to the day-to-day modifications and decision-making, which is engaged in by the school leader. Second-order changes refer to those initiatives the leader undertakes that are significant departures from the school’s past.

With first-order changes and daily modifications, the school leader must engage in all twenty-one responsibilities, a truly daunting task. However, when a leader focuses on second-order changes, he or she must emphasize those responsibilities that drive innovation. While guiding a school through second-order change, faculty and staff often perceive leaders as lacking in some areas. In fact, some of the twenty-one responsibilities may erode. Accordingly, a critical aspect to effective school leadership is the leader’s ability to invest his or her time and energy on the right tasks.

For example, school leaders may see teachers and administrators working hard – engaged in lots of activity – but not necessarily see them working smart (e.g. engaging only in activities that increase and support higher student achievement levels). How do effective school leaders determine where to invest their energy and efforts, as well as those of their faculty and staff? By using a Comprehensive School Reform (CSR) model or a site-specific evaluation and strategic planning approach. CSR models are the foundation of every accreditation process. Most accrediting agencies state their work is not to get schools to comply with their standards but rather to ensure schools are continually engaged in comprehensive, strategic school improvement. However, “the research indicates that the effect of any given CSR model can vary greatly from site to site.”[14] CSR models must meet the unique and changing needs of individual schools. Effective school leaders must identify specific factors and possible steps to customize a CSR that authentically meets the needs of their school. Guiding a school through a meaningful and authentic CSR builds levels of trust in the leader.[15]


Based on the findings of the meta-analysis, Marzano and his team offer a five-step plan for school leaders to increase their effectiveness. The first step outlines the need and value in developing a School Leadership Team. Each team member must clearly understand his or her role and purpose, as well as the requisite knowledge and skill-set. The second step involves the school leader distributing many of his or her twenty-one leadership responsibilities to the team. This also highlights the importance of having the right team members. They must be individuals whom the school leader can fully empower and trust to be successful in their areas of responsibility, so the leader can then focus on the senior level responsibilities unique to his or her position. The third step is identifying specific steps to take to help the Leadership Team identify the right work for the faculty and staff. The fourth step analyzes whether the right work is of first-order or second-order change. The fifth and final step connects the needed leadership responsibilities with the work identified to best guide through the change.

Merging the Two Studies

The TrustED 360 School Leadership Assessment identifies the linkage of each school leadership responsibility with the eight pillars of history’s most trusted leaders; providing school-specific application of trust research to the administration of a school. David Horsager has graciously endorsed the use of the eight Pillars of Trust as a framework for identifying and applying research-based best practices supporting each of the twenty-one responsibilities of school leaders.

The linkage of each responsibility is not necessarily isolated to a specific or individual pillar. However, it is important to keep in mind that all the pillars and their associated responsibilities must be in place for leaders to be fully trusted. What is most important is the pursuit of all twenty-one responsibilities to support all eight pillars. For example, even though the TrustED 360 assigns the school leadership responsibility of Input (i.e. valuing the expertise of others) to the Compassion Pillar, it could just as easily link to the Connection Pillar. Valuing others’ expertise and intentionally seeking it out is a behavior that fosters deeper relationships and equally supports Connection.

The value of the linkage between school leadership responsibilities and pillars of trust is in providing school-specific strategies, methods, practices, and protocols, that build, maintain, and restore trust when necessary – all founded in research-based best practices.

©2018 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D. All Rights Reserved 


[1] Horsager, The Trust Edge, 169-170, Kindle.

[2] Ibid., 273-275, Kindle.

[3] Ibid., 620, Kindle.

[4] Marzano et. al, School Leadership That Works, 491-495, Kindle.

[5] Ibid., 690-740, Kindle.

[6] Ibid., 745-748, Kindle.

[7] Ibid., 1110, Kindle.

[8] Bob Witziers, Roel J. Bosker and Meta L. Krüger, “Educational Leadership and Student Achievement: The Elusive Search for an Association,” Educational Administration Quarterly  39, no. 3 (August 2003): 398-425.

[9] For more information on the work of Jim Collins see Jim Collins website, accessed 22 August 2016,

[10] For more information on the work of Richard Elmore see Harvard Graduate School of Education, accessed 22 August 2016,

[11] For more information on the work of Heifetz and Linsky see Cambridge Leadership Associates, accessed 22 August 2016,

[12] Marzano et. al., School Leadership, 680, Kindle.

[13] Ibid., 1106, Kindle.

[14] Ibid., 1758, Kindle.

[15] Council for Higher Education Accreditation, “The Value of Accreditation,” Council for Higher Education Accreditation, (June 2010): n. pag.

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