I was recently asked the question, “What would you tell Dr. Gay if she came to you for advice about how to rebuild trust and help the Harvard community move forward when there is quite a bit of pain and distrust among alumni, students, parents, donors, faculty and staff?” There are so many layers to this question. I think that there can be no moving forward until a baseline of trust has been established. 


You have the leader, the mission and values of the organization, and the community. While the person inquiring was specific in asking about the “alumni, students, parents, donors, faculty and staff,” there are other constituencies to be taken into consideration also. Trust in a leader erodes when the leader’s words and/or actions are inconsistent with what the community expects of them. These expectations can be based on prior experience of this leader, based on the mission and values of the organization (the contract of what we stand for and the behaviors we reward or punish), but they are also shaped by the image that the community holds of the person and the role. 


Leaders are called upon all the time to make tough decisions and to take a stand. They are human beings and don’t always get it right. The question is whether they have built enough credibility with their community to be afforded the opportunity to work to fix it when they get it wrong. It’s important that, when their words and actions aren’t aligned with their values and beliefs, they reflect on how they allowed that inconsistency to occur. It is through that deep reflection that they can learn from the experience and choose to make a different choice going forward.


The leader must then own that lapse with the community. President Gay has since said, “I am sorry. I got caught up…in what had become a combative exchange. I failed to convey what is my truth.” Integral to this is whether the community feels this ownership to be authentic and sufficient or not. If the community feels that the leader has honestly acknowledged their part in eroding the trust, then the leader has an opportunity to create a space where they can truly listen and learn from those who have been impacted. Only when the community feels that the leader has genuinely heard and understood them can a dialogue begin that co-creates a way forward.


The rebuilding of trust then happens over time, brick by brick, each time the leader acts in a way that is consistent with what they have conveyed to the community.