Commentary by Lt. Col. Ed Harris
50th Mission Support Group deputy commander
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — A couple years ago, a colleague of mine wrote an interesting commentary on leadership. Lt. Col. Raj Agrawal, 20th Space Control Squadron commander, penned, “Trust is the Currency of Leadership,” It’s a short article, and I recommend the quick read.
In the article, Agrawal emphasized trust as being fundamental to leadership, followership and teamwork. He said, “As leaders, our subordinates need to trust that we will give them top cover when they innovate, take risks, or debrief errors. As followers, our superior officers need to know we’re operating within commander’s intent, with loyalty to both public support and private dissent, and that we can be trusted with the mission, people, and resources. As teammates, our peers must be able to trust that we will not undermine them, look for ways to out-shine them, or even worse, stab them in the back. Our trustworthiness is the revenue that empowers us or the debt that disables us.”
If trust is the currency of leadership, then how do leaders build a treasure trove of trust?
I can’t claim an original thought on the topics of leadership or trust. There are countless books on these subjects, and all of them have their own unique leadership formula.
However, I can expand on the qualities and actions of leaders who, through the course of my career, I’ve found to be inspirational. They are leaders who have successfully affected positive change within an organization, and those who have, largely without design, established an indelible personal legacy by virtue of having earned the trust of those they had the privilege to lead.
For me, such inspirational leaders include retired Gen. Ed Rice, Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland, Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, Col. Andrew Kleckner, Lt. Col. Joe Clemmer, 1st. Lt. Clayton Eilert, retired Chief Master Sgt. Edwin Forrest, Staff Sgt. Stephen Yelbert, Senior Airman Audacity Harris and many others.
Another such leader is Maj. Gen. John E. Shaw. In 2005, as a young lieutenant and a member of the 4th Space Operations Squadron, I failed an Operations Group Standardization evaluation. I committed a “major” error during a simulated satellite contact and a “critical” error during an emergency procedures drill. In essence, I had figuratively lost the bird and killed everyone on crew. It was the highest level of professional humiliation I had suffered. I felt worthless and privately questioned my continued military service. My teammates jeered; it was fraternal mocking but ego-bruising nonetheless. I wasn’t spared the shame of debriefing directly with my squadron commander and having to explain myself, at the time to Shaw.
I remember formally reporting-in, accompanied by my flight commander as well as OGV and Operations Support Squadron representatives. We went over my errors, and I feared the ramifications of my failure in a culture where excellence is the standard, not an achievement. While I expected to be further embarrassed and shunned, Shaw instead stayed positive.
“Ed, I’ve made mistakes in my career. We all make mistakes. You play an important role in our mission to deliver secure and survivable communications for the war-fighter. You are a critical part of the team, and I have full confidence in you. I have no doubt that you’ll Highly Qualify the next evaluation.”
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. Shaw’s actions had deep emotional resonance with me. He made me feel safe. Minutes later, as we concluded the debrief, I saluted him, did an about-face, and began to exit his office. Midway out the door Shaw stopped me, smiled again, and pointing his finger said, “Ed, by the way, I will personally administer your next eval.”
Fortunately, despite the added pressure, the outcome of my ride with Shaw did indeed result in a HQ. I had corrected my errors, learned from my mistakes and was eventually able to recoup my self-confidence. Shaw wanted to personally oversee the evaluation, not in an effort to critique my performance as much as to witness my ultimate success.
I think back at the experience and reflect on how Shaw’s actions led to building trust. As a leader, Shaw stayed positive when he could have hammered me, he also admitted that he too had made mistakes and was reassuring.
He made me feel valued and underscored our common goals in delivering secure communications for the defense of our nation while impressing upon me we worked together.
He uplifted me with his vote of confidence and demonstrated he cared about me by personally administering the evaluation, and celebrated in my eventual success.
It’s a leader’s responsibility to influence others and inspire trust. It doesn’t happen overnight. In my career, I’ve witnessed the most inspirational leaders establish trust through regular interaction and by:
• staying positive
• being consistent
• serving others
• working together
• admitting mistakes
• making others feel valued and
• being transparent
• communicating clearly
• having an open mind
• having shared values
• emphasizing common goals
• doing the right thing
• showing people they care
• providing top-cover
• celebrating the success of others
I challenge you to think about inspirational leaders in your life, those who have unquestionably and positively impacted you. How did they build their treasure trove of trust?
In summary, without trust, there is no connectedness within an organization. Individuals simply comply with their job duties versus being fully committed to the team (compliance vs. commitment).
Organizations will fail if its members are walking on eggshells and don’t feel psychologically safe. Mistakes will happen, learning from them is key. If you don’t trust your boss, you should probably be looking for your next job. Trust is the currency of leadership!