Building trust

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James Blech
  • 349th Air Refueling Squadron
We often hear that trust is an essential element of any successful organization, but what does that really mean?

Leaders don’t have the ability to impose trust on organizations—it’s not something that can be stated or directed. On the contrary, it must be cultivated. This is difficult as real trust is rooted in personal risk.

It is an emotional phenomenon, buried deep in our primal brains as a mechanism to distinguish between safe and dangerous situations. To fully trust is to lose direct control over our safety and embrace ambiguous outcomes to an event, which is not an easy thing to do.

Trust is the lifeblood of innovative and effective squadrons. It empowers everyone in the unit, from the youngest Airman to the commander, to boldly attack problems in pursuit of their common mission.

In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek discusses this phenomenon at length, citing the ability for leaders to create safe work environments as paramount to enabling success. He notes that “When that happens, when those kinds of bonds are formed, a strong foundation is laid for the kind of success and fulfillment that no amount of money, fame or awards can buy.”

In order to truly revitalize our squadrons as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force directed, we must work tirelessly to strengthen the bonds of trust across the service.

Here are a few thoughts on this task:

1) Trust works both ways. Subordinates must demonstrate that they trust their leaders, especially when the fog and friction of war sets in. Similarly, leaders must trust their subordinates to execute the commander’s intent, even if they are unsure of the outcome. Commanders should carefully communicate their intent with this in mind.

2) Trust is an emotion. Intellectual arguments are interesting—but people need to feel safe in order to trust. Because of this, trust can be emboldened with strong relationships.

3) Trust is risky. People can betray trust—but don’t assume they will.

We must never forget that all of our nation’s combat power is derived from trust. The U.S. Air Force will prevail as the world’s most lethal fighting team into the foreseeable future because of the outstanding men and women in its ranks. To capitalize on our greatest resource, our airmen, we must foster the trust needed to create an environment in which they can thrive. Trust, then, must continue to serve as our bedrock principle and organizational imperative.