Trust: A Keystone Element of Leadership

Hurtling at over 900 kilometers per hour, 10,000 meters above the ground, in a hunk of metal filled with flammable gasoline always has an inherent risk, and even more so when someone is trying to shoot you down. But if aircraft commander Captain Byrd and his crew had any fears of surface to air missiles threatening to blow them from the sky, they put them aside when they heard the request over the radio from Ground Control to enter into North Vietnamese enemy territory to save a formation of four F-105 fighter-bombers at great risk of running out of fuel. This was a highly unusual request, to be sure. It was actually clearly against the rules for unauthorized aircraft, like defenseless tankers, to enter into North Vietnamese airspace. Not only was it physically dangerous, but a pilot and crew could face stiff, career-ending penalties for breaking regulations. But if the pilots who needed the emergency fuel were forced to eject after their engines flamed out, they faced possible injury, death, or perhaps worse, years of torture in a North Vietnamese prisoner camp.

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Air Refueling Tankers had no defense against Surface-to-Air missiles such as this SA-2, but Captain Byrd and his crew faced this danger because of trust. Source: http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil

Despite having no anti-missile protection, or escorting fighter aircraft, the navigator quickly calculated the right direction and airspeed, and the crew turned their KC-135 air refueling tanker toward unfriendly skies fraught with danger to give those distressed brothers life-saving fuel. The pressure was high on the crew to make this unplanned trip that required avoiding surface to air missile sites while bringing together aircraft traveling at a combined closure rate of around 2,000 kilometers per hour. At just the right moment, Captain Byrd maneuvered their plane into a left turn to roll out just in front of the thirsty fighters, allowing the refueling technician in the back of the tanker to skillfully deliver the fuel in rapid succession to all four aircraft.  Perfect crew coordination in the face of danger, disaster averted, and all aircraft returned safely home.

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F-105 fighter aircraft being refueled by a KC-135 Stratotanker Public Domain

Why are people willing to put aside their self-interests and safety in support of a larger cause? Why did Captain Byrd and his crew not hesitate to answer the call that put them in imminent danger? The answer has to do with the most important leadership trait—Trust. Trust is a keystone element upon which all other leadership traits and skills rely.

How important is trust?  Studies have shown that employee trust has a close relationship with company financial performance, labor productivity, and service quality. Noted author Stephen M. R. Covey shows that high trust increases speed of business and reduces cost. But only about half of surveyed US workers say they have trust in their senior leadership.  One survey showed that 45% of people identified lack of trust as the biggest issue impacting their work performance. The global World Values Survey, which has been conducted regularly since 1981 by a network of social scientists in nearly 100 countries, shows that many countries, including Thailand, suffer from low social trust. In response to the question in the 2010-2014 survey, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” only 32% of Thais thought that “most people” can be trusted, while over 66% said that one needs to be very careful.  Lack of trust manifests itself in the numerous government regulations imposed on businesses. For example, just one section of the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which was passed in direct response to several disastrous instances of corporate fraud and breaches of trust, was estimated to have cost the US economy 35 billion US dollars in 2007.  When employees don’t trust their bosses, when leaders don’t trust their followers, when governments don’t trust companies and private enterprises distrust the government, the society and economy suffer.

Author and speaker Simon Sinek tells a powerful story of leadership, loyalty and trust similar to Captain Byrd’s crew in his talk “Why good leaders make you feel safe,” in which he recounts how US Army Captain William Swenson came to earn the military’s highest award, the Medal of Honor. Captain Swenson, according to his medal citation, “distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as embedded advisor to the Afghan National Border Police.” (United States Army) Leading a combat team that was surrounded and attacked by an overwhelmingly superior force, Captain Swenson repeatedly faced lethal enemy fire to assist and evacuate his troops. Sinek has posed the question to remarkable combat leaders, such as Captain Swenson, “Why would you do something like that?” and has found that every one of the replies boil down to one insightful statement– “Because they would have done it for me.”

Swenson Captain Swenson helps his team mates on to a medevac helicopter. Source: http://www.cbsnews.com

Creating an environment of mutual trust, in which leaders put the comfort and interests of their team in priority above themselves, is key to every type of leadership, whether in military, business, or family—but it’s not simple. As Sinek points out, you can’t just tell someone to “Trust me,” and expect it to happen immediately, because trust is based on feelings and experience as well as reason.  But you can work on trust. You can make it a part of your character, you can build “trust accounts” with your leaders, colleagues, and followers, and can even use knowledge of the chemistry of the human body and mind to bring more trust into your workplace or family. We’ll explore those ideas in following articles. Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings

Author: CummingsRL

Lt. Col. Robert Cummings, completed his PhD dissertation on the Thai-Chinese community in Hat Yai at Chulalongkorn University. He has an MA-International Studies and MBA. A retired US Air Force command pilot and Asian Affairs specialist, he served as assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy and assistant air attaché in the US Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand. Conversationally fluent in Chinese and Thai, he currently resides in Thailand.

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