Trust: The Leadership Difference

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jefferson O'Donnell
  • 333rd Fighter Squadron
"Trust is the essence of leadership," retired Army Gen. Colin Powell once said.

When listing the characteristics of a leader, "vulnerable" is an unlikely term to arise; but anyone who places his or her trust in others is inherently "vulnerable." How a leader approaches vulnerability falls on a spectrum ranging from absolute paranoia to euphoric blind faith. Most feelings of worry (especially paranoia) often generate an unhealthy desire to manage situations and people, irrational thoughts of being able to personally prevent every error, and an absence of trust. On the other extreme, blind faith is equally unrealistic considering the inevitability of human error. Both limit followers' potential. Somewhere in the middle is the approach that effectively manifests in words and actions as "I trust you" and unleashes the most capable performers.

Imagine an organization where every Airman knows and complies with applicable technical orders, regulations and directives; where every Airman reports to work and completes tasks on time; where every Airman selflessly prioritizes personal interests to optimize mission performance; where every Airman is present because he or she has voluntarily chosen to be a member of the unit; and where every Airman recognizes he or she is a valued and important part of the team. In the United States Air Force, creating that organization requires leadership trust. The Airmen are already here. As a leader, achieving the ability to say "I trust you" and truly mean it is as easy as believing in the Air Force Core Values: Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence in All We Do.

People will make mistakes. Mistakes may be simply human error or they may reflect deficiencies in training or resourcing. Mistakes are not violations of the core values and are not violations of trust. From time to time, someone will commit a crime -- an act that is willful and malicious or grossly negligent. A crime is a violation of the core values and a violation of trust between the leader and those responsible, not the organization; and trust is sustained through the acceptance of responsibility and the application of corrective and/or administrative action. Unfortunately, both instances -- mistakes and crimes -- will challenge a leader's ability to trust.

Henry Stimson, Secretary of War during World War II, said, "The only way you can make a man trustworthy is by trusting him; and the surest way to make him untrustworthy is to distrust him and show your distrust."

To retain that trust approach is the difference of leadership.

Whether as a supervisor, commander, parent, deacon, teacher, team lead or team member, we all will experience opportunities to be a leader. An environment built upon the most effective leadership trust will in and of itself reward integrity, grow selfless servant-leaders and inspire excellence. You cannot achieve the mission alone. Give your trust to Airmen, and they will do incredible things!