Is Relational Trust the Key? Understanding How Cabinet-Level Executives Build and Use Relational Trust to Lead Change in Urban Districts

Stacy Elaina Holland, University of Pennsylvania


This qualitative study examined how cabinet-level executives who serve in urban districts built and used relational trust to lead change. Cabinet-level (c-suite) executives are the senior-level leaders in school districts who are responsible for managing large functional areas, in addition to advancing reform agendas. However, c-suite executives have received little attention in educational leadership research. This study examined how c-suite executives used relational trust to assist with leading change within urban districts. In existing research, school leaders who mastered the skill of building relational trust reported that reform initiatives were more successful when relational trust was present between school leaders and ‘followers’ (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Tschannen-Moran, 2014). This study questions whether this finding is also true among c-suite executives who are responsible for leading central office functions within urban school districts. This dissertation was an emergent phenomenological qualitative study of eighteen cabinet-level executives. Participants served in urban districts of varying sizes in nine locations across the United States. Semi-structured interviews were the primary data collection tool. The study revealed three key findings. First, cabinet-level executives demonstrated three leadership approaches (autocratic, transformational, and situational) to lead change. Second, leaders used three different trust-building practices (stakeholder engagement, teambuilding, use of formal change management processes) that varied by leadership approach. Finally, the mediating factors of time, district, and emotion influenced the trust-building practices used by c-suite leaders. The results of this study offer insight into whether trust-building constitutes a critical leadership competency for c-suite executives who are seeking to effectively lead change within urban environments. While trust is not required for change to occur, building relational trust with stakeholders and followers will assist c-suite executives in producing meaningful, sustainable change rather than transactional change.

Subject Area

Educational leadership|Educational administration

Recommended Citation

Holland, Stacy Elaina, "Is Relational Trust the Key? Understanding How Cabinet-Level Executives Build and Use Relational Trust to Lead Change in Urban Districts" (2020). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI28026070.