Trust is the cornerstone of leadership, a “force multiplier” and imperative to a future effective Army, Col. Patrick Sweeney, USA, Ret., told several hundred attendees at a professional development forum before the formal opening of the Association of the United States Army’s Annual Meeting and Exposition Oct. 21.
“There is a high link between trust and leadership.” said Sweeney, director of leadership, character, and business ethics initiatives at Wake Forest University’s School of Business. “Trust is one’s willingness to be vulnerable to another group member – be that a leader, a subordinate, or peer – to be vulnerable to their actions, based on a sense of confidence that the group member will behave as expected.”
Speaking at a noncommissioned officers forum, Sweeney divided the efficacy of trust into a series of key components – individual credibility, relationships, organizational structure, and context.
“Individual credibility is the foundation,” Sweeney said. “We place our trust in who the person is.”
Sweeney divided this component into three aspects – competence, character, and caring.
“These are universal to all cultures,” he added.
Sweeney used the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire as a case study in the relationship between trust and effective leadership.
During this incident, a team of 16 “smokejumper” firefighters deployed to fight a wildfire on the south side of Mann Gulch along the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness in Montana’s Helena National Forest. The firefighters originally assessed the fire to be a routine “ten o’clock fire” but it soon grew larger and more potent due to an increase in wind and the high slope of the mountain. Added to this dilemma, the firefighters’ radios broke upon arriving on the scene.
The group was led by nine-year-veteran Foreman Wag Dodge who only met the rest of the 15 men that day because of the United States Forest Service’s training structure at the time.
“Whoever was the most rested would go out with the leaders,” Sweeney said. “They did not train as teams. There was no socialization process to teach the culture to all these people coming in.”
“Can you imagine completing an airborne operation with people you’ve never met before?” he added.
As the wildfire spread dangerously close to the group, Dodge had to think fast. To the shock of most of his men, he began to burn another fire. This now common practice, building an “escape fire,” was relatively unknown at the time – the idea being this new smaller fire would quickly burn up all the potential “fuel” ahead of them, allowing the firefighters a safe zone from the fast approaching larger wildfire.