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Essential Trust

Essential Trust

Basic Formation Flying

I will always remember my first formation flight. I was as an Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) student and was in the T-37 Tweet, a side-by-side, two-seat, jet. Up to this point, being close to another airplane in flight was always bad and so I spent most of this particular flight worrying about not running into my buddy’s airplane.

Initially, we practiced very basic flight maneuvering together and rehearsed the fundamental hand signals used in such an undertaking. We were introduced to several techniques such as turning and straight-ahead rejoins, change of flight lead, and so on. In all, we learned of the distinct responsibilities between the flight lead and wingman.

The lead needed to plan ahead and be decisive yet reasonably smooth. The flight lead also needed to give consideration to the wingman such as not climbing out at 100% power in order for the “wingie” to have power to stay in position. While both pilots shared the responsibility of not hitting each other, the wingman had the greater role in this with a focus on the lead aircraft.

Maintaining the assigned position was an essential role for the flight wing and this required scanning the lead airplane much like scanning an instrument panel for good depth perception and positioning. Of course, there were standard definitions of all formation parameters. As we progressed through UPT, the performance expectations became more exacting and we were introduced to additional formation types and maneuvering.

Advanced Formation Flying

Upon graduating from UPT and moving on to advanced flying schools, formation standards were much like a student being able to read to learn. Formation was no longer the main thing but a necessary part of flying fighters. By this point, flying without another airplane in the near vicinity made any of us feel naked. The mutual support between two or more aircraft had become natural and valued. The flurry of verbal and non-verbal signals was now second-nature. In tactical flying, the formation types were sometimes widely separated but were formations nonetheless.

In all this, the lesson of mutual trust was a core principle we all lived by. Sometimes this core value was violated with potentially disastrous results. Later in my career, I participated in one flight of four F-15s including a general officer who had not flown enough in recent weeks. Very early in the flight, the rest of us realized this pilot needed some remedial work. In retrospect, the flight lead should have sent this senior pilot home … on his own. I can still picture the group of us carefully compromising a bit on position to stay clear of the offending pilot’s airplane. This was a lesson in how important trust was and not to take it for granted.

One of the non-negotiable elements of a leadership environment is trust. Everything rises or falls on this element. A closely-related second piece is communication because trust is built, maintained or torn down by the exchange of words and ideas. Let’s address each in next.

Trust and Leadership

Why is trust important to leadership? Without trust, individuals are not open with each other. They hide behind a façade for personal protection. In any healthy human relationship there is a basic question under the surface that says, “How much do you care about me?” Again, stress the word healthy. Most people will not maintain a long-term friendship with someone who belittles them, tears them down or devalues them. We have all worked at some point for a boss who was a jerk. You can be sure there was some sort of reaction going on first internally and then sometimes externally. The “fight or flight” instinct was kicking in.

Think back to that boss you thought was a jerk. What if he or she would have approached you asking for input on an upcoming project? If you knew your ideas were consistently not valued or used, how likely would you have been to contribute openly? You might have made some helpful comments depending on your personal values but probably stopped short of giving a high-quality thesis.

One the other hand, think back to working for a boss who brought the best out of you. This person consistently appreciated your participation and implemented at least some of your thoughts into a final solution. Now, how likely would you be to offer thoughts on an upcoming task? It was probably hard to shut you up! Why the difference between the two scenarios? In one word: trust. Over time, most healthy people do not gladly go where uninvited.

Now try to imagine how trust impacts a team grappling with a problem. With low trust, members are suspicious of other’s agendas. The old saying of “knowledge is power” may be the phrase of the day as supposed colleagues posture and jockey for what is most self-serving instead of the task at hand. With high trust, each participant is fully engaged and valued. More importantly, the collective paradigms are brought together for powerful discussions that lead to incredible solutions. Most of us would gravitate toward the latter environment of high trust. After all, it is good, clean adult fun to be part of a great solution for the betterment of the team as a whole.

The idea of promoting high trust is not to advocate an over-sensitive atmosphere or one that is too “sappy.” Plastic interaction can be more annoying than other dysfunctional behaviors. The overriding theme is for the benefit of the enterprise. The Air Force puts it as “Service Before Self.” Taken in a principled context, this is an inspiring challenge to all who want to leave something better than they found it.


Part of the anatomy of trust is communication. It can be surprising how we are perceived by others. I might think I am efficient and business-minded. Another person might say I am short-tempered and inconsiderate. A true leadership student is very interested in growing in self-awareness to improve communication and thereby cultivate high trust-relationships. This is not about feel-good work as much as it is about making business work better. Of the number of bosses I have worked for over the years, a few stand out as the ones for which I would still drop everything and go help with a moment’s notice.

Building and Maintaining Trust – It takes considerate and courageous communication in order to build trust: considerate because it shows I value you and what you contribute to the mix; courageous because most people can detect authenticity or the lack thereof. If someone is less than authentic, it makes others wonder ‘why’ and be suspicious of a hidden agenda. On the other hand, if people someone who is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get person in a considerate way, trust builds. (I can believe this person; this person is really interested in working together with me, and so on.)

Another important part of building and maintaining trust is to make and keep commitments. As a team evaluates how to achieve long-range goals, group players will need to participate and this is where commitment comes in. Making a pledge is great but is only half the equation. It is essential for the member to keep the commitment otherwise, it would have been better to not have made the promise in the first place.

Tearing Down Trust – Of course, doing the opposite of the building and maintaining trust will lead to sabotaging trust in relationships. This may stem from simple lack of attention versus ill will. This reinforces why the developing leader must constantly cultivate self-awareness. High-impact solutions are made from high-trust relationships.

While some may scoff at the value of trust, it is a force multiplier that deserves to be considered in any organization. There certainly are organizations that operate and make money without high-trust. How much more profitable would they be with improved trust?

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