The Edelman Trust Barometer 2021, a respected measure of trust in social institutions, reports a failure at some level in the trust that the general public has in the four core institutions in America: business, government (where the Army lives), nongovernment organizations and the media. COVID-19, the economic crisis, issues of racism, and political instability have fueled this trust instability and created a significant crisis in leadership.
In a March 10 article headlined “Trust in the military is dropping significantly, new survey suggests,” Military Times reported a 14% drop in reported trust for the military over the past three years, from 70% in 2018 to 56% in early 2021, according to a poll by the Ronald Reagan Institute. Alarmingly, the trend appears to be on a downward slide.
While these numbers reflect an external view of the military as an institution, what is not known is the internal view: Do soldiers trust the Army and its leaders? The Army’s investigation and a November 2020 report on the death of a soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, shed some light on this question, suggesting trust in the military is at risk.
The Army operates across the globe in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment, and trust, as a function of competence and character, is the foundational requirement for successful outcomes. Bob Johansen, in his 2017 book, The New Leadership Literacies: Thriving in a Future of Extreme Disruption and Distributed Everything, leverages the Army’s VUCA concept, writing, “I believe that the world will be increasingly turbulent in the next decade due to disruptions that will create breaks in the patterns of change, on a twisting path toward distributed everything. Distributed everything will mean disrupted everything.”
Because of the demands of “disrupted everything,” leaders cannot maximize command and control, cannot micromanage effort, cannot always be present and therefore, they must empower execution in others. Johansen goes further in suggesting that one of the enduring leader fundamentals, one that enables leading effectively in this “disrupted world,” is the leader’s capacity to build trust across all aspects of organizational life.
‘Coin of the Realm’
So, what has become clear from these and many other comments from scholars and leadership practitioners is that in today’s operating environment, trust is the currency required for effective leadership and is the bank account that funds individual, team and organizational effectiveness. And this currency of trust is the fundamental “coin of the realm” in today’s Army—the currency that matters most.
So, what is this currency we call trust?
There are many ways in which trust is described. A distillation of the core characterizations of trust includes the descriptions of trust as a:
- Powerful emotion, a feeling of safety in the presence of others.
- Belief that one can count on another, a team or an organization: “I have your back and you have mine.” “You are not alone.”
- Belief that others will do as they say, demonstrating individual and organizational integrity.
- Bond based on integrity and earned through respect.
- Belief that others will do what is right and not just act in their own self-interest.
Trust also creates the willingness to be vulnerable and accept risk on behalf of others and the organization, and engenders a sense of connection and belonging.
Based on this distillation, trust is most simply a promise of care, concern, competence, understanding, respect and fairness from good leaders to others. It is transmitted by an emotional connection built with effective relationships, fostering the cohesion, collaboration and cooperation essential for achieving good outcomes in all aspects of life and work.
Importantly, soldiers can put their trust in others in two domains—character and competence. The competence domain is easier to see, train and assess because, for example, leaders can see the results on a marksmanship range or in the operational readiness of vehicles and equipment. Both domains are important to mission success, but as Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf opined, if the leader could only have one of the two, that one should be character.
Why does trust matter?
It seems intuitive that trust is important and fundamentally matters. Yet it is often an overlooked and taken-for-granted effect, and not as a more purposeful and intentional process that requires leader attention and right behavior. When leaders pay attention to building and sustaining trust, many good things happen, such as creating an environment to more effectively influence the behavior of others; enabling greater employee engagement and commitment; facilitating greater innovation and creativity; realizing greater productivity; enabling greater influence on others by facilitating effective communication; increasing cohesion and coherence in work, collaboration and cooperation; and generating loyalty with all stakeholders, particularly employees (soldiers).
In Patrick Lencioni’s 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, the No. 1 and primary dysfunction is a lack of trust. The vaccine for this dysfunction is what leaders intentionally do in demonstrating competence and credibility, which enables the capacity for building the effective relationships that create trust.
What can leaders do to build trust?
By most relevant measures, trust does matter, and building trust in an intentional and sustainable way has significant, positive outcomes. With this in mind, what are the leader behaviors that we know, with certainty, intentionally create the conditions for trust to occur?
We know certain behaviors, often demonstrated in an unconscious, mindless manner, destroy the conditions for trust to exist, including avoiding conflict and just getting along vice getting it right; breaking promises made; focusing on compliance and not commitment through collaboration and cooperation; failing to communicate and listen; assuming trust exits; and not caring, or faking like you care.
Leaders who practice emotional intelligence can more effectively develop trust in their organizations. The specific leader skills to help with developing and maintaining trust are self-awareness and self-management. Additionally, making trust the forefront of relationship management, again a component of emotional intelligence, will assist in sustaining trust over time.
Trust is earned, and there are evidence-based leader behaviors that enable trust to develop and flourish over time. Following are the most effective leader behaviors that build trust. And it is important to remember that trust is an effect, an outcome, of what leaders intentionally do. Leaders:
- Communicate and behave predictably and consistently; they do what they say.
- Are self-aware, have clarity of purpose and are authentic; they are people of character.
- Demonstrate commitment and dedication to others; they have made the transition from “I” to “we.”
- Have competence and credibility.
- Demonstrate compassion, humility and empathy.
- Keep their promises.
- Demonstrate humility and vulnerability; they acknowledge their humanity.
- Build strong, effective relationships that are characterized by care, concern, understanding, respect and fairness, leading to cooperation and collaboration.
- Simplify and focus effort, build cohesion and create community.
Leadership, under all conditions, is only functional through the interaction of three elements: the leader, the led and the situation. The leader has the ability to exercise influence across all three and build trust intentionally.
Trust is the sine qua non—an indispensable condition or action; the “coin of the realm” of individual, team and organizational effectiveness, particularly in the military; it is the leader’s currency. Effectiveness in life and work, particularly in the VUCA context, is firmly anchored in relationships that are characterized by trust.
Without the goodwill and trust that emerges from collaborative relationships, individuals, teams and organizations do not have the currency to reach their full potential. This is a leader’s most important investment and must be made every day—the currency called trust. Without it, organizations of any size are bankrupt.
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Col. Joe LeBoeuf, U.S. Army retired, is an executive coach at the executive MBA programs at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, North Carolina, and with Praevius Group Inc., Texas, and Thayer Leadership at West Point, New York. Previously, he was a professor at the U.S. Military Academy and a professor emeritus at Duke. He began his nearly 34-year Army career as an enlisted soldier, then commissioned as a combat arms officer from West Point in 1974. He holds a doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Lt. Col. Joe Doty, U.S. Army retired, is executive director of the Feagin Leadership Program, Duke University School of Medicine, and previously served as deputy director of the then-Center for the Army Professional Ethic. He has commanded at the battalion level. He holds a doctorate in character education from the University of Northern Colorado.