Trust is the Currency of Leadership

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

In June 2016, I was given the rare privilege to command an Air Force space operations squadron.  With our powerful phased-array radar installation near Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and the recent addition of three geographically-separated optical sensor detachments in Hawaii, New Mexico, and Diego Garcia, the sun truly never sets on the 20th Space Control Squadron.

This team of over 200 civilian and military Airmen is undergoing significant culture change as we take on serious challenges in an increasingly contested space domain – shifting from operating simply as space traffic controllers to fighting as space battle managers.  This aggressive culture change requires a steady supply of trust - trust from and for our geographically-separated leadership, our squadron’s Airmen, and our detachments.   

Trust is a leader’s wealth and we get to invest it in our mission and Airmen.  As leaders, we are in the business of building trust.  Trust is not something that is given based on our track record, our accomplishments, or the number of diplomas hanging on our wall.  Those things might affirm trust, but they don’t necessarily inspire it. 

Author Steven Covey once said, “Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, elusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather, trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create.” 

We create trust by operating competently, with above-reproach standards of character and commitment.  We invest that trust when we push our Airmen for jobs they don’t necessarily qualify for on paper, or when they fail, or when they need support to innovate.  We lose trust when we fail.  It sounds simple, but trust is the currency of leadership.

Our squadron’s officers recently began regular mentorship sessions and I chose Colin Powell’s “It Worked for Me” as our first book to study.  In it, Powell recounts a time during his tenure as Secretary of State, when his team ended up being wrong about the number of worldwide terrorist incidents in an annual report to Congress.  Congressman Henry Waxman of California attacked the report, and upon review, Powell’s team agreed with the congressman’s argument.  In his book, Powell says, “I called Waxman to tell him that he was right…because he trusted us, he gave us the time we needed.” 

It was the trust that Colin Powell had already established with the congressman – a trust that Powell’s team benefited from – that provided the freedom of maneuver for the Secretary of State to remedy his team’s error.  Additionally, it was the team’s trust in their boss – their trust that he would own the error as his – that gave the team the margin to debrief and correct their errors.  No one on the State Department team was fired as a result, and there was no further congressional intervention.  It was the trust that Colin Powell had garnered through relationships as a subordinate, teammate, and as a leader that got the team through.

Trust is fundamental to leadership, followership, and teamwork.  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. 

Most importantly, the trust we inspire gives us the freedom of maneuver we need to serve our Airmen.  We are all personally responsible for inspiring trust through transparent motives, demonstrated by corresponding actions.  When we give our teammates reason to trust us, they give us support to take risks, to challenge assumptions, and to lead boldly. 

Trustworthiness is a lifelong pursuit that will not only make us more effective Airmen, but will give us a strength of character that will outlast the uniform.  We must constantly be in the business of cultivating trust.  In doing so, we maximize our freedom of maneuver to lead, as we do everything we can to invest in the mission and our fellow Airmen.

 

Lt. Col. Raj Agrawal is the commander of the 20th Space Control Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, with detachments at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., Maui, Hawaii, and Diego Garcia. Agrawal is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, Air Command and Staff College, and School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.