Build Trust By Leading With Compassion

Anyone can be put into a leadership position, but to demonstrate real leadership that builds trust and inspires peak performance, you need to put the concerns of your followers above your own.

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For me, the Cold War was literally spent shivering in a frigid world! I spent my first four years piloting the air refueling tanker, the KC-135R Stratotanker, on the wind-swept plains of North Dakota, which was bitterly cold in the long winters. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, we spent one-third of our time “sitting alert,” meaning that we lived in a dormitory-like structure next to our parked and prepared aircraft, the tankers loaded with fuel, the B1 Bombers with weapons, prepared to rush to our aircraft in the event of an attack. Crews treasured any opportunity to escape from that environment, which usually came in the occasional training mission to warmer parts of the US.


Any chance to escape the frigid winters of North Dakota was welcome by air crews.


On missions away from our home station, the traveling crew usually consisted of about five people—three commissioned officers and two enlisted members. (A commissioned officer holds a “commission” from the President of the US and is a higher ranking position with the authority to command. An enlisted member is any rank below a commissioned officer). The officers were the aircraft commander, the co-pilot, and navigator, while the enlisted were the crew chief, who could perform light maintenance and helped prepare the aircraft for flight, and the “boom operator,” the skilled technician that maneuvered the attached air refueling pipe that inserted into receiving aircraft in the air.


A boom operator maneuvers the air refueling boom to refuel an F-16 aircraft.

Source: By John E. Lasky – United States Air Force, Public Domain,

Observing how different aircraft commanders and officers behaved on these trips provided a good lesson in leadership. Because we travelled so infrequently, taking care of the logistics of post-flight inspecting and securing the plane, coordinating any required maintenance, unloading baggage and any cargo, setting up transportation, accommodation, and most importantly, getting food in the belly could take time and be a challenge. Some of the tanker training missions were quite long, with many hours spent just doing the pre-flight briefings, aircraft preparation, and flying the mission. Once on the ground, the first impulse of some of the officer crews would be to get going on the fun part of the trip as soon as possible, rushing to get checked in to a hotel and finding the nearest bar or club. But the more responsible leaders ensured that everyone stayed together, worked as a team, and completed all the post-flight requirements. They would help unload baggage and cargo before taking care of their paperwork duties. If a crew chief needed to stay and do some maintenance, they would ensure he or she had food, transportation, and all the support that was needed. They would see that everyone had appropriate accommodations, knew where and how to get around, could communicate any problems (these were in the days before mobile phones, if you can imagine!), and were properly fed and cared for. The best of the leaders checked themselves into their room only after all crew members had everything they needed.

To be effective, a tanker aircraft needs to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right amount of fuel to successfully complete a mission, and all that requires close, rapid crew communication and coordination. That only happens with trust. When an aircraft commander built trust by his or her actions on the ground, it was reflected in flight. Crew members who trusted one another communicated more efficiently, concentrated on performing their own jobs better without worrying that someone else wouldn’t do theirs, and generally performed much more effectively than crews with low levels of trust.

Noted author Simon Sinek, while researching his latest book on leadership, asked US Marine Corps officer Lieutenant General George Flynn about the effective nature of Corps leadership, to which he answered, because “officers eat last.” That simple concept inspired the title of Sinek’s book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, and illustrates a powerful principle that builds the most important character trait of leadership: Trust.

The actions of those aircraft commanders who showed care and concern for their crew, who made sure that they served themselves only after seeing to the needs of the people under their command, helped to build a bond of trust which made those crews the most effective and highest performing.  Anyone can be given some authority, some people to direct, and be called a “leader,” but only leaders who build trust with their followers can get people to go beyond the minimum requirements of a job and perform at their best. According to General Flynn, a leader builds that trust with a combination of values and behavior. Trust-building values include humility, integrity, and compassion. Inspirational leaders practice humility by serving those that they lead, demonstrate integrity by being consistent in their behavior and doing what they say they will do, and show compassion through acts of kindness.


Lt Gen George Flynn, at his retirement ceremony.

Source: By Cpl. Tia Dufour, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain photograph from

Abraham Lincoln once said, “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” Lincoln rose to his leadership position in a time of division and hostility, not unlike what we see today in the domestic political situations in the US and Thailand. In that atmosphere, effective leadership requires the attitude of being a servant and friend. Showing compassion doesn’t mean that you give up being directive and decisive. Lincoln had to make many tough decisions, standing firm on principles of respect for fellow humans and respect for law, but he managed to do so with a certain air of humility that communicated empathy.

My former colleague at the Air Force Academy and outstanding author Jeanne Heidler, with her equally eloquent husband David, illustrate this leadership characteristic of Lincoln in their telling of Lincoln’s relationship with his political rival, Stephen Douglas. (I highly recommend their article at Despite personalities and political positions on opposite ends of a spectrum, Lincoln managed his relationship to Douglas with grace, humility and diplomacy.  Competitors from the Midwestern US state of Illinois, Douglas was prim and proper, Lincoln more folksy and held in contempt by some as unrefined. The Heidlers recount an amusing and revealing story of Lincoln’s inauguration, in which the Democrat Douglas assists the slightly awkward and distracted new president with his hat. Despite their differences, Lincoln described his rival as a “noble man,” and it was this respectful attitude that built his legacy. In his relationship with Douglas, Lincoln demonstrated those trust-building characteristics of humility, integrity, and compassion.


Lincoln demonstrated humility, integrity, and compassion.


In my previous article, I discussed another General Flynn, US Army Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, the former NSA director who was asked to resign due to “trust” issues. I explored some ways to rebuild broken trust, or to build trust in an environment where it is lacking, through relational transparency. Being transparent is one way to make deposits in the “trust accounts” of others. Being a servant leader, showing care and compassion, and putting your followers first is another way to make large trust deposits. In future articles, I will discuss more specific behaviors that build trust and improve leadership abilities. Stay Tuned!


Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings


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