Assessing and Intentionally Developing High Levels of Trusted Leadership:
Interview with Dr. Toby Travis

Research reveals that trusted leadership is the #1 indicator of successful nonprofit organizations and ministries. Thus, the intentional and purposeful assessment of trust, ongoing development of trust, and repairing trust are critical for nonprofit leaders.

Tory Travis

Dr. Toby Travis

Dr. Toby Travis is the founder of TrustED, a framework for business, organization, and school improvement focused on developing trusted leaders. In addition, he is an Executive Consultant with the Global School Consulting Group, an Adjunct Professor for the International Graduate Program of Educators for the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and an experienced teacher and school administrator, currently serving as the Superintendent of the Village Christian Academy in Fayetteville, NC.

As a guest speaker, trainer, and consultant, his work has taken him throughout the United States and Europe, South Asia, Central, and South America.

Dr. Travis is the author of the award-winning book “TrustED: The Bridge to School Improvement” – available on Amazon, featured in Forbes, named “Book of The Month” (November), and nominated for “Book of The Year” (2021) by The Magic Pen.


Learn more at


Read the Interview Transcript

Hugh Ballou: Hello, everyone. It’s Hugh Ballou with The Nonprofit Exchange. Each of our 300 episodes is unique and helps leaders reframe what we’re trying to do and what we will do. We can do it, but what’s in the way? We are sometimes. Leadership is misunderstood.

My guest today has a lot of secrets about leadership, Dr. Toby Travis. Dr. Travis, tell us about who you are, and why is leadership a passion of yours?

Dr. Toby Travis: Very happy to be here. Thank you for the invite and the opportunity. Currently a superintendent of schools and a consultant and trainer for other school leaders. I have done some writing. I have a book out and a calmness for a number of magazines. That is what keeps me busy these days.

Formerly, I was a school administrator at the principal level. Before that, a teacher. Before that, I was in nonprofit ministry, and even some show business, producing touring shows and productions. I had an entrepreneurial background as well. I have been around various facets of the importance of leadership and team building in the business sector, nonprofit sector, and education sector. I am passionate about developing trusted leaders. That was the focus of my doctoral studies. That’s why we’re talking today.

Hugh: You mentioned a book. Tell us about it. You just happen to have a copy handy.

Dr. Toby: TrustED: The Bridge to School Improvement, available on Amazon. It’s applicable to any organization or business development. The principles are universal, but the applications and illustrations in the book are all from the education sector because this is primarily where I live and work.

Hugh: Play on words there. Important perspective. Education is a really important field, especially today. We have lots of people with lots of opinions about how things ought to go. Teaching our young Americans how to think is primary.

You have been quoted as saying that teachers do not leave schools; they leave school leaders. Is that the primary reason why we are at a national teacher shortage, as part of the overall employment crisis?

Dr. Toby: I don’t know that it is the primary reason, but it is certainly a factor. We have been in a teacher and admin shortage for years. The pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Fewer and fewer students from education programs at the college/university level. There have been fewer individuals pursuing school leadership as a career. That has been a long-standing problem for years. Not just here in the U.S., but in the U.K., in Latin America. It’s not unique to here, but it has certainly been elevated as a crisis, and largely a crisis of leadership.

When you look at the schools and school systems, and even the private or charter sector, retention is not an issue. Why are they able to retain their staff? Why are they not being negatively affected? You find there are higher levels of trust in their leadership. Folks want to stay. They want to be there.

It’s one of the correlations we see and found in the research. When there are high levels of trust, there is high levels of retention. It’s one of the key factors we see and the benefits of being intentional ensuring there are high levels of trust, and taking intentional steps to make sure that stays in place.

Hugh: Trust, leadership, communications are all based on relationship, aren’t they?  

Dr. Toby: Always, yes.

Hugh: A couple of books come to mind. A Lutheran pastor Marva Dawn wrote a book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down. It was about the church dumbing down, trying to reach the young people. Her first chapter was about education. It goes back three or four decades about systems being compromised, and that is largely about leadership. Alfie Kohn writes about leadership and has some very pointed things to say. We’re dumbing down to reach the lower common denominator. Alfie Kohn is not a fan of standardized testing. Do either of those factor into leadership?

Dr. Toby: It can. It certainly factors into the climate and learning or work environment that we are creating for schools and educators, and what students are experiencing as well. We can go down a few paths here. Standardized testing is a hot topic. It depends on how the data is being used and what it’s being used for. For example, I’m a great fan of a tool known as MAP, Measures of Academic Progress. You could call it a standardized test. But the purpose of the test is to guide instruction. It’s not about holding kids or teachers accountable. Give me some data to know where the learning gaps are for this student. If we are using data to guide instruction to meet the needs of the kids, then yeah, all for it. If we’re using the data to award points and dollars to a school, this is where this gets really problematic, and where levels of trust go down.

Hugh: That’s true. That’s where leadership comes in. There is wisdom and discernment. There are a lot of factors to leadership. We are working on the intellect. I am not a fan of IQ tests because we are measuring memory comprehension. Joy Guilford had a structure of intellect, which measures multiple dynamics of intellect: problem solving, creative thinking, etc. As a leader in education, what you’re talking about is specifically about education, but it’s not uniquely different from what is going on in corporate America or the church or the nonprofit world, is it?

Dr. Toby: We found there are six components of trusted leadership. In the book and consulting I am doing in the educational world, we drilled down to the specific skillsets and competencies that support those six components. The components of trust are true regardless of the organization, the sector that we’re talking about.

Hugh: Let’s talk about that. You’re going to wonder after we get off here, where do I find this author/speaker/leader? It’s Let’s talk more about the book and what people will find there. They can get it on your website and Amazon.

Dr. Toby: The book came out of my research and work of trying to understand what and how do we get our arms around this complete topic of trust? How do we assess it? First of all, given a baseline of how are we doing in our trust level, understanding the various components of trust. This is where I use the illustration of a bridge. A bridge has multiple components that must be working together and must be reliable for that bridge to be trusted.

This is true in leadership. There are multiple components and complexities to what that looks like. We need to drill down to once we assess, I need to develop my communication skills. Specifically, what does that look like? In my work, what does that look like in the role of a school principal or head of school? We look at very specific best practices, what the research says, and implementing action steps to get us to a better place. That is what the book is about: talking about and providing a framework for understanding a very complex issue and turning it into an actionable step that we can take and do something different on Monday.

Hugh: Leadership is treated in business schools as a soft skill. It’s a missing component. You have some pretty hard results if you don’t have that “soft skill.” What is one of the biggest misconceptions in any field about what leadership is?

Dr. Toby: Especially when it comes to this topic of trust, folks will often say, “Either you have it, or you don’t.” They’re referring to it as a soft skill although I have seen a number of articles recently that talked about power skills. That’s a good term. What we’re talking about are life skills really. We have the ability to develop these. It isn’t you either have it, or you don’t. Some people are more naturally gifted in some of these skillsets and competencies, but they can all be identified, we can now measure them, and we can literally use data to drive improvement plans. We can identify if a leader has listening skills or not. If they don’t, we know how to train a leader to develop the skill of active listening. That is a skillset. It is a competency that we can develop. When we do, our leadership gets better.

Hugh: Where does awareness come into the picture?

Dr. Toby: It’s always the first step. Somebody will ask me, “I know somebody needs help.” I can help them if they want the help, if they recognize they need the help. Until a leader is at a point where they can be reflective, where they can allow others to speak into their lives, use a 360 assessment with the school leaders I work with, just being at a point where you’re okay with allowing your employees to assess you in your performance, that’s risky behavior. Yet taking that risk also builds trust by just saying to my employees, “Tell me how I’m doing. Let me have it.” That willingness to be self-reflective, to be humble-

I’m sure you’ve read Jim Collins; I’m a big fan of him. His Level 5 leader, mission-passionate and humble, those are the two key characteristics of his top leader. Same thing we’re talking about here. Where does that come in? It comes at the beginning. If it’s not there, you’re going to have a hard time seeing any kind of genuine or real improvement.

Hugh: When do you make it as a leader and just glide forward?

Dr. Toby: I’m not sure I quite understand your question because I don’t think that exists.

Hugh: That’s my point. I love it when people say, “I read the book. I don’t need leadership. I need something tactical.” It’s the implementation piece. There are so many facets. People need somebody like you or me to help find those blind spots. I’m a leadership coach, and I have a leadership coach. It’s imperative for me to have somebody give me feedback and find the things I can’t see about myself. It’s really important to have a sounding board like yourself, isn’t it?

Dr. Toby: Absolutely. It’s one of the first steps to success as a leader. It’s this idea of always being mentored. I’m always encouraging those who I’m mentoring: Who are you mentoring? It’s the old principle in teaching: Who learns the most, the student or the teacher? The teacher. I want to always be mentoring because in my mentoring of others, I’m learning, and I’m being self-reflective. I always want to be mentored, which means I never arrive. I am always getting better. I am always developing, Lord willing, in my work and my practice and my life. But that comes through pouring into others as well as being receptive to what others have to pour into you.

Hugh: Continuous improvement is a corporate program. Continuing improvement is a personal goal. I’m 75. I’ve learned more in the last year than I did in the first 74 years. It’s just a joy to get better at what we’ve been doing a long time and then share with others. Leader

s set up problems or have unexpected consequences to their decisions. Sometimes those problems create a barrier with or disrupt the trust. Talk about how we inadvertently set up problems. When we do, is there a way to go back and restore trust?

Dr. Toby: Transparency as much as you’re able. Sometimes, as I’m sure you know, in leadership, there may be confidential matters that have negatively impacted a project or program that we can’t be transparent about because it’s a private issue with an individual or an employee. To the greatest extent possible, we want to be transparent, and we want to share as much information as we can with those that we’re working with.

We want to own certainly our own failures. When we have blown it, we need to be the first to acknowledge it. I really felt I was going down the right path here, and I chose incorrectly. I own it. That transparency is a great place to start. How trust is built, and how it’s restored, the two questions have the same answer. Make a promise, and keep it. This is how trust is restored. In my coaching sessions, I’ll often say to a leader, “What promises can you make to your employees or those whom you’re leading in the next few weeks, or certainly no more than a month or two out, that you can deliver on, that will be either to their benefit or the organization’s benefit or whatever it is they are doing? What can you deliver on? Make the promise. Deliver. Keep doing that.” This is how trust is restored. It’s not fast. It takes time and consistency.

What we have found, going back to the research on this field is trust can be restored. One exception. If a leader has made a blunder, and they own it, and they seek to restore trust to the relationship, but they make the exact same mistake again, the percentage chance of them actually being able to repair trust after that second infringement is almost nonexistent. It’s time to pack it up and go find another adventure to engage in. If we are careful to create structures and accountability so that we don’t do that one again, I’m not going to get caught making that mistake again, you can rebuild trust and move on. Sometimes it’s even healthier and stronger.

Hugh: Absolutely. What happens in the repair process is so critical. It’s not that you had a falling out or a problem. It’s how you deal with it, isn’t it?

Dr. Toby: Yes. I work in a Christian school environment here. Often, I have said to my staff that what makes a faith-based school unique is how we go through the problems together. Every school has problems. Every organization has challenges. You put a lot of centers on a campus, and we’re going to have problems. What makes us unique in our faith community is how we go through this problem together. How do we resolve this together? Do we hold to what we really say we believe? Are our values lived out? That’s true, whether we’re talking in a religious environment or not. It’s key to organizations and businesses that we know what our beliefs and values are, and we consistently live out what we do in our practice based on those beliefs and values.

Hugh: Absolutely. I’m surprised how many in an intake process for working with me can’t clearly identify their organizational values and their personal values. How will you know if you’re in alignment if you can’t specifically identify them? Those are crucial, aren’t they?

Dr. Toby: Exactly.

Hugh: You spoke about transparency. Brene Brown writes about vulnerability. Those are related but not the same. I work with some power leaders. One guy says, “I’m going into my executive team, and there are some things I don’t do very well. How do I handle that?” I said, “Why don’t you just tell them?” Silence. He says, “I can’t tell them that I have weaknesses.” Silence. I said, “And you think they don’t already know?”

We don’t want to hide things from people. They say, “I’m going to show him/her.” The vulnerability doesn’t mean you’re a wimp. Talk about vulnerability and transparency. I’m going to go back to accountability later. Those are strong leadership capabilities, I believe.

Dr. Toby: So do I. Leadership in any organization is all about the team. It’s never about one individual. We could go back and talk about the story, where you see an individual came in, did a great job for a short period of time, but it wasn’t sustainable. There are so many examples of that that we have seen in all sectors. Healthy organizations are led by healthy and trusted leadership teams. What makes a team healthy is I know my strengths, and I know my weaknesses. I’m transparent about them. This is why I hired this individual over here because they’re really good in an area that is a weak area for me. If we could create a profile of the superhero leader, we would see, I might be the bicep, but I need somebody else to be the legs, whatever the illustration may be.

Let me go back to the school example. In the book, I talk about definitive research that shows us that effective school principals have competencies in 21 specific skillsets. We have also discovered that no single principal is competent in all 21 skillsets. The point is they must develop a team. When we assess and build teams, we know what these skillsets are, so we have to make sure that we have someone on the team who can bring that to the school. Boom. This is where we see we’re rocking and moving.

Back to this idea of transparency and vulnerability. It’s very healthy for me to understand I am an instructional expert and a leadership expert. Curriculum, I can talk about it, but I need somebody on the team who knows curriculum. Just because I’m a school superintendent doesn’t necessarily mean I am a curriculum expert. I can be transparent about that. Somebody calls me, and they have a question about: Should I be using this curriculum for math? Great questions. I can tell you what I’ve read, but let me point you to the expert in our school on that. That’s the better answer.

It’s knowing what are my strengths, and what are areas that others can bring much more value to the organization than I can myself? Being okay with that. I don’t have to be the best or the leader in everything. I need to know what I have to bring, and bring it to the best of my ability. That’s not weakness. That transparency or vulnerability isn’t, I’m not Superman. No, I’m not. I’m Toby. This is what I bring.

Hugh: My wife thinks I’m Superman. No, she doesn’t. Ralph Vaughan Williams, the British composer/conductor, did a lot of great work. He was known to have said, “Music did not reveal all of its secrets to just one person.” You can change “music” to “leadership.” Teamwork. There is a synergistic (that is my company, SynerVision) like an ensemble in music, energy that comes when we as leaders learn to delegate. Why is delegation so difficult for leaders? We teach skills and gaps instead of strengths and weaknesses. I don’t like to think I’m weak. I have a gap, which I don’t do so well. Joey does it a lot better than me. If I don’t delegate, I’m not a good leader. But that’s hard for a lot of leaders. Why is that?

Dr. Toby: It’s a trust issue. I see it all the time. If you drill down, the bottom line is they don’t trust their team to deliver. They buy into this false idea that it’s easier for me to do it myself. Well, you may perceive that it’s easier, but it is not what is best for the organization. It’s certainly not what’s best for developing your team. What you’re setting up is not sustainable because it’s all about you. When you’re out of the picture, the organization is going to take a nosedive.

The problem is, and I have often challenged leaders on this, when they are fearful to delegate because they are concerned for that person to be able to deliver, I’m like, “Why did you hire them?” If you’re not going to trust them to do their job, why did you hire them? You’re wasting your time there. If you can’t trust them, let them go find their happiness elsewhere, and hire someone you can trust to do the job. Set your benchmarks. Set your thresholds of when you need them to come back to you. You don’t advocate; you delegate. Then you support for their success. You tell them where you want this to end, but you don’t tell them how to do it. Treat them as professionals. Let them go. If you can’t, then you have hired the wrong person.

Hugh: Yeah. What you just outlined are deficits in leadership. From where I see, if we can’t define the end result, we can’t share the facts and support that person and get out of their way. The failure is not only theirs, but it’s the failure to lead.

You talked a minute ago about setting up systems so that you know when people report. You know where you are in a project. You can do that without having to be there all the time. We don’t tell anybody what to do. We tell them what we want at the end. Is that what you’re saying? Here’s the result I want.

Dr. Toby: You want to define the desired end. This is our desired future on this project. I would also counsel you to identify a threshold, meaning once they get to a certain point in whatever the task or project may be, this is where I want a check-in. I want to hear about how you’re doing here. In the meantime, how you get it done, go. Make sure you stay true to our organizational values, beliefs, and structures. Go. You figure that out. If you need something beyond what you have access to, I want to be a resource for you. I want to help you problem-solve. Come back and talk to me. Otherwise, go. Get it done.

Hugh: You heard it right here. He just gave you 1, 2, 3. Toby, I think it’s in your book, how to delegate, how to set up systems.

Dr. Toby: Yes.

Hugh: How’d I know that? The book is called Trust ED. You can find it on Amazon. You can go to

Dr. Toby: You could also go to Same place.

Hugh: Are there other checklists or guides in the book that would help somebody create-

Dr. Toby: Oh yes, all kinds.

Hugh: What are some other things you’ll find?

Dr. Toby: We talk about email. That’s a popular one. I have seen this change school cultures. One of the things that we talk about is never using email to solve a problem. Never. Never use texting or email to solve a problem. In fact, I counsel every organization I work with and the schools I have led over the last few years, it goes right into our grievance policy of the organization. You may not submit a grievance via email. You can document it. If you submit it via email, the only response you’re going to get is, “Thank you. Set an appointment. Let’s talk.” I will not engage about the problem via email.

What we have seen is that leaders who will discipline managing problems by valuing relationships and face-to-face conversations increase their level of trust tremendously. They don’t get sucked into this texting thumb culture of bashing people and having things come out of their thumbs that would never come out of their mouths. There are those types of tips as well for specific behavioral changes that we can make in our daily practice to increase our levels of trust.

Hugh: That would require that we manage and discipline ourselves, wouldn’t it?

Dr. Toby: Yes, indeed. It begins with us.

Hugh: Things escalate so fast like it’s a non-personal setting on email or text. Really, research I have seen says that only 7% of a message is in the words anyway. You’re missing all of this emotion in the face and the personal touch. You’re not really getting the message across. You just think you did.

Dr. Toby: Exactly.

Hugh: One other thing I wanted to hit before we wrap is we talk about why people leave. Approximately 70% of school improvement initiatives fail, like it does in other industries. Why is that? Is there a connection to trusted leadership in that?

Dr. Toby: That is an interesting stat because it holds true not just in the school sector. 70% of new businesses fail. For entrepreneurs that are listening, it’s the same stat. 70% of business improvement initiatives fail. It’s the same stat across sectors. When you dig in to figure out why, the literature shows it’s almost always about execution. When you dig deeper, what is it about the execution that fails? It’s leadership. We’re back to John Maxwell. Everything rises and falls on leadership.

This is why I am always on this mantra of we must take the time and the investment to assess our leadership team’s trust levels, to ensure we are building continual improvement of those levels of trust through personal, professional, and systems development of our organizations and schools because if we miss that, nothing else is going to work.

A common complaint in the school world, and I’m sure you’ve heard it in others, is we are always doing something. There is always some new initiative. They have this new project, this new practice. They are always changing things up. It doesn’t last, or it fails. Why? Because they’re not taking care of the root issue. The root issue is trusted leadership. We have to make sure that’s in place first. Then we have to protect it and ensure that it stays in place, or 70% of what we’re going to be trying to launch in that organization will not come to fruition. We’re missing the key stabilizing factor to all improvement initiatives.

Hugh: Absolutely. Another 70% is the Gallup survey that says 70% of the work force is either disengaged or actively disengaged. That’s in the same thread of relationship, isn’t it?

Dr. Toby: The #1 factor of teacher engagement is trusted leadership. The #1 factor of student engagement is the relationship with their teacher. These are all trust issues. There is a direct connection for the student to be engaged. For high levels of achievement, there has to be a high level of trust of relationship with the teacher. For the teacher to be engaged, there has to be a high level of trust of relationship with their supervisor or school administrator. It’s a direct connection to student achievement levels as well.

Hugh: There is no difference with the corporate head or leader or division leader or the pastor or the nonprofit leader. There is no difference really. I said that was the last question, but I lied. Do you have time for one more?

Dr. Toby: I do. Let me just make a mention if I may about how there are major studies done on innovation, both in education and in the corporate sector. Same conclusion. The #1 factor driving innovation is trusted leadership. If you want high levels of innovation in whatever your organization is, it is all about people feeling trusted to fail. When they feel like I can take a risk in what I’m doing, and be supported, then you have higher levels of innovation. It is key. So many ways we can measure this.

Hugh: I think you addressed it. Let’s see if there is any more you want to say about this last question. The higher-level performance, I call it higher-functioning leader. They inspire higher functioning teams. In conducting, and you shared with me that you did middle school band, that’s pretty hard work. You don’t turn your back. It’s a level of influence. Famous conducting teachers say that what you see is what you get. The culture is a reflection of the leader.

A lot of these things you’re talking about are ways to create a specific DNA of a high performing or high functioning organization. Give us some more tips on how we can raise the bar on our functioning to be able to raise the bar on the functioning of our teams and the organization. How does that have impact on our students, our donors, our volunteers, our members? We impact people’s lives. How is that important? What’s the thread there?

Dr. Toby: One of the things that we have found true is the more that we extend trust, the more we’re trusted. There is this reciprocal element of how trust works. One of the exercises I often do with schools or challenge them to do on their own is go through your handbook, go through your policy manuals, and see if there is any policy in place within your organization that is grounded in an assumption of distrust. Are you systemically creating a work or learning environment based on the fact that you don’t trust students or teachers or employees to do the right thing? When we do that, we’re actually getting what we’re creating.

Think about it. Often, what will happen in an organization is some employee or a student in a school setting has done something they should not have done. What administration does in response is create another policy that penalizes everybody. Penalizing everyone for the sins of the few. This builds distrust. This is an assumption of distrust. In some settings, you need accountability structure. Those should be minimized. In the hiring protocol, if you have to have so many structures in place to ensure your employees are doing what they are supposed to be doing, you have hired the wrong people.

How does it go back to things like student achievement? The more we empower students to own their own learning, and trust and support them to do it, you have to have that- Teachers functioning as guides of self-discovery. This is where we get the highest levels of engagement of students.

Back to the statement I made earlier: The more engaged a student is, the higher the levels of student achievement. We have seen the same thing in the work force. The more engaged an employee is, the higher the output. It largely comes back to has trust been extended to them to work as a professional? Are we trusting students with their learning? If not, what are the structures we can put in place to become more successful? Is it a matter of resources? Is it a matter of the learning environment ourselves? Extend trust, you’ll get more trust in return.

Hugh: Lot of really good sound bites in this interview. I want to highlight your website one more time, There is an About tab. In there is a Contact tab. You can reach out to Dr. Toby there if you want to learn more. The book sounds like a gold mine of resources for leaders. We constantly need resources because as we grow in our skills, we find out there is more stuff we need to learn. That book sounds like I need to have it in my library. Toby Travis, what is a parting thought for people today?

Dr. Toby: The #1 indicator of school and organizational success is trusted leadership. Make sure you’re assessing it, maintaining it, developing it, and protecting it.

Hugh: Thank you for being our guest today on The Nonprofit Exchange.

Dr. Toby: My pleasure. Thank you, Hugh.

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