Trustworthy leader/ship

There’s a lot going around at the moment about trusting leaders. I’ve already written about the way Australians’ trust in our political leaders was shaken over the summer. This week we’ve seen  articles coming out about school leaders and plans to roll back some policies that provided autonomy for local decision-making, accompanied by a suggestion that principals needed more layers of accountabilities so that we could be sure they were investing money in the most efficient / effective ways. Responses from leaders and the professional associations representing them were clear that what is really needed is trust and support.


I was speaking about this wardrobe research last week with a colleague and they reflected on a paper they recently read about the difference in responses to being ‘managed’ when broken down into performance management from men and women. He said that men were consistently being seen as fair and giving reasonable feedback when having to work with underperforming employees. In contrast, women were seen as being unfair, and their employees reported a higher intention to leave as a result of the performance management conversations. I haven’t been able to find that specific paper, but there are scores of other papers that tell us similar things (e.g., this one that suggests women leaders receive more backlash when doing their jobs).


We’ve spoken about similar issues before, in relation to feedback and evaluations – women receive comparatively lower feedback scores from students, and more comments on their appearance and wardrobe (an issue that is even moreso pronounced for women of colour).


That conversation led me to think about the Heads’ Protest from 2018, when Heads from schools all over England marched on Downing Street to raise awareness about the impact of austerity and funding cuts on their schools. We’ve written about this in previous posts as well as in our forthcoming chapter based on this project. Their collective image was utterly professional – and the symbolic “TRUST US” was louder than any words could have been.


Photo by Romane Gautun on Unsplash

So the idea of trust is rattling around in my brain right now. It relates to this study in two different ways… one is in the public image of the ‘professional’ leader. The performance of ‘trustworthiness’ and the fabrication in part through wardrobe and appearance of what that looks like – and the conscious decisionmaking about how that portrayal comes together through wardrobe and appearance. Along with that, comes the sense of self and identity that is being formed through those wardrobe choices. Dressing for the job one wants, etc.

The other is in the perception of what a professional leader looks like and what happens to a woman leader when their appearance might not match those ideas and perceptions.


One of the biggest recurring phrases in responses to our survey was ‘professional’ (and variations thereof) when describing wardrobes. There’s a significant amount of time, energy, labour, financial outlay, and physical work that goes into creating that image of the ‘right’ kind of professional leader. We are interested in how that feels for leaders, how it plays out, and whether anyone has had any critical moments / memories in relation to this.


We’d love to hear from you.