#115 The Risk/Trust Nexus

Earlier this week, General Martin Dempsey was installed as the 37th Chief of Staff of the Army, it's top position. The next day he published a document entitled, "Thoughts on Crossing the Line of Departure" and sent it to the force. You can find the link to it here:


What struck me about the paper was the last paragraph.

"One other thing you need to know about me. In my 37 years, I've been deployed several times, to several different kinds of conflict. In each case, upon notification to deploy, I was able to requisition nearly everything my unit needed. What I couldn't requisition was Trust, Discipline and Fitness. These qualities have to exist in every unit, and in every Soldier of our Army all of the time. When I come to visit your organization - whether a tactical unit or part of our institutional Army - I'll want to know what you're doing to develop a climate of trust, to ensure the discipline of your Soldiers, and to increase the fitness of the Force."

What are you doing to develop a climate of trust? Interesting question. I think it will be instructive, and somewhat amusing, to watch different levels of command from the individual Soldier all the way through Divisions and Corps try to answer his question. I've got a suspicion that there will be a lot of dancing around at the podium if that one comes up during a briefing....

What does it take to develop a environment of trust? To arrive at a mutual understanding such that the leader and the led both enjoy the same feeling that they have the tools and support to carry out their assigned missions, or to address an emerging challenge? And, important to the discussion, who determines whether or not that climate truly exists?

In his book, "On Becoming a Leader", Warren Bennis had this to say about the role of a leader in developing a trusting organization:

"There are 4 ingredients that leaders have that generate and sustain trust:

1. Constancy - Whatever surprises leaders themselves may face, they don't generate any for the group. Leaders are all of a piece. They stay the course.

2. Congruity - Leaders walk their talk. In true leaders their is no gap between the theories they espouse and the life they practice.

3. Reliability - Leaders are there when it counts; they are ready to support their co-workers in the moments that matter.

4. Integrity - Leaders honor their commitments and promises."

I think these 4 simple ideas are key to developing trusting organizations across the Army. These belong to both the leader and the led equally. First, be constant. Be there. Be engaged and be proactive. See the problems, and provide a rock for your people to lean on when they lose their way. Expect the crisis to arise and prepare yourself mentally and physically for it. Learn to listen to the discordant sounds in your head that alert you to an impending change of course and then prepare your people for it. Second, congruity. Be who and what you say you are. Provide your people a faith that what they see is what they get, not a caricature of something acting in a way that does not ring true. Third, reliability is key. people need to believe that others genuinely care about them, and that that care is returned in a manner that they can recognize. Without that feedback mechanism, there is no way for either side to know, without a doubt, that the other is acting on their best behalf. If, a person half-steps in his or her personal commitment to someone then the entire trust system breaks down. Finally, Integrity - Hand in hand with reliability, integrity is people's spoken and unspoken commitment to others and the organization. If every level of the Army can actively demonstrate those 4 qualities, I believe that the entire organization will certainly be able to live up to General Dempsey's mandate that we become an institution of trust.

The missing key here though is the element of risk. A leader must have a vision for the Soldier and the organization. That vision may be markedly different from the Soldier's understanding of their present circumstance. So the two are very far apart in the beginning. The job of the leader is to close that understanding gap. The risk for the Soldier is believing in something outside of their understanding of the current environment. Things have to be done by the leader to demonstrate that their vision (narrative) is more accurate or correct for the Soldier than the Soldier's is. That Soldier is risking his/her narrative against a new one. I think it is imperative that leaders understand and respect that.

There is risk for the leader as well. If they offer a narrative that is too widely divergent from the Soldier's narrative, they risk that the Soldier cannot accept it at all and rejects it summarily. If the leader does not have a method of bridging that gap, then it won't matter if their narrative is correct. The Soldier has no way of hearing it, or seeing how to achieve it. It is incumbent upon the leader to recognize when that happens. The possibility is that the two groups remain apart and actually start to drift further than they started. This is the worst possible scenario and often leads to the toxic environments that plague a lot of units today.

So small steps are taken by both sides. The leader says, "Follow me." The led says, "OK." This is risk 1 for both. But both sides are holding out something. The leader may want to run down a particular road because they know it is best. However, they may need to let the led go down another road first for no other reason than to learn that it is not the right one. This is trust 1 from the leader. That the led will reach the end of that road and be able to recognize that they went the wrong way. The leader has to take small steps to demonstrate Bennis's four ingredients in ways that resonate with the led. This is risk 2. This has to happen because, in the beginning, it is the led's determination of whether or not the leader's vision will work, or had value that will advance the trust or stop it cold. This step is taken without knowing the outcome in advance. This is the risk/trust nexus. Where the two come together. The leader will not advance the narrative without the led buying in, and the led will not buy in unless the leader possesses something that provides them a belief that their 'buy-in' is in their best interest. This is a true test of leadership versus management. Managers - and a lot of Army 'leaders' are actually managers - impose systems to implement vision. Leaders gain the willful acceptance of their vision from subordinates. One is system driven, one is human driven. Both have a place in the Army, but they are not the same and we do a disservice to the entire organization when we mix them together.

The nexus of risk and trust is the center of the leader universe. You cannot have one without the other. And risk, how much, when and where, is the real starting point for any discussion involving trust.

So who sets this tone? Who sets the wheels of risk and trust in motion to advance a vision or narrative? Honestly, I think there is equal opportunity on both sides of the equation. I think the Army and most large institutions believe that they often control both of these in moving the narrative forward, but in reality, both the leader and the led have responsibilities in the dialogue that will not work if one side or the other owns the entire process. The leader has to have a vision to share. The led have to be willing to look for opportunity in it. The leader determines how the narrative will play out. The led have to provide feedback when they cannot see the steps. The led have to have faith in the leader's narrative. The leader has to gain that faith. The led had to be willing to risk the status quo. The leader has to value their risk.

Ultimately, the risk/trust nexus is a dance between two equal partners. Trust cannot dance by itself. Nor can risk. As the Army drives forward under General Dempsey's hand, it will be interesting to see how this dance of risk and trust plays out. Right now, the leader has set a new narrative in place. It is up to us the led, the take the leap of faith required, to take some risk that our narrative might need to be updated. With mutual respect for the leader, the led and the institution, this is possible. Without it, the Army will stagnate in it's current methods of thinking.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Really glad you wrote about trust and that Gen Dempsey is making it a point of emphasis...trust is a powerful teambuilder, powerful bond, pwowerful leadership force multiplier, and can be seen and felt....

    it takes a long time and day to day effort to build and sustain....and seconds to lose....