Trust and Launching Helicopters

Marine Infantry Officer Course, Quantico, 1992 (author’s photo)

Where does trust come from, and how can you build more of it?

In the early morning hours before sunrise, worry and doubt can creep into your thoughts. Being in an unfamiliar place that’s hot and dangerous doesn’t help. In early October 2004, that was me in Iraq’s Anbar Province.

My shift as Regimental Combat Team 7’s senior watch officer ran from 6pm to 6am. I had been there for about 30 days, which meant I was getting into the unit’s routine but I was still learning a lot every day about combat in Iraq. At the same time I was quickly getting to know the other Marines on the night shift in the operations center, and those in the other units we worked with.

One of the battalions working for RCT 7 at the time was 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines. One night at the beginning of that October, the battalion sent a patrol in some vehicles to cross from the west to the east side of the Euphrates River. The goal was to approach the town of Hit (pronounced like “heat”) from the east, and we didn’t have Marines on that side very often, if at all. We hoped to catch the enemy by surprise.

On watch that night at 1/23’s operations center was Jeff Slaga. We were classmates together in 1992 at Quantico for the basic officer course and the infantry officer course. Renewing our relationship in Iraq felt effortless. In our respective roles we counted on each other, and his presence made it feel somehow easy for me to talk to 1/23 on the phone or the radio.

As the patrol got closer to Hit, they started to pick up on signs of enemy activity. There were Marine attack helicopters available on “strip alert” (basically, available for a 9-1-1 call in the event of enemy contact), and Jeff and I discussed whether it would be a good idea to launch them. Despite the indicators there wasn’t any active fighting, so we mutually agreed we didn’t need to launch them yet.

I’ve often reflected on these events and what I learned from them in the years since they took place. The lessons were many, especially about trust. Today in my coaching business, I research how trust is created in organizations and I help my clients build it among their people.

I recently participated in a webinar about trust in the workplace put on by Zenger-Folkman, a leadership development and research company. They analyzed over 87,000 leaders and developed an idea they call the “Trifecta of Trust.” For high trust to exist, they found these elements need to be present:

1. Build Positive Relationships

2. Exercise Expertise and Good Judgment

3. Demonstrate Consistency

Reflecting back on the early October morning in 2004, there was an immense amount of trust present that I wasn’t really thinking about at the time. Jeff and I had a positive relationship built over the course of more than a decade. This allowed us to speak frankly with each other, we relied on each other’s expertise and judgment. And in the weeks since we had renewed our relationship, we received consistent performance from each other, him in his role at 1/23 and me in my role at RCT 7. Our trust was high that early morning.

The more I reflect on this event, the more clear it becomes to me that there was an incredible level of trust well beyond the relationship between Jeff and me. In just two examples of this, the Marines manning the strip alert helicopters trusted we wouldn’t call for them unless there was an actual need. And the Marines on the patrol trusted that if they needed support, we would get it to them. There was actually a web of trust that went out in many directions, making the greater organization operate effectively.

At around 5am that morning, I started to think that the Marines on patrol would get through it without making enemy contact. They would scout out the route and then return to their base. My watch would end at 6am without incident and I would go to bed quietly and calmly, getting ready for the next night’s watch rotation.

Just as I was thinking this, the phone rang and Jeff said, “Launch the strip alert!” That’s all it took for us to spring into action. The battalion’s patrol on the east side of Hit did make dramatic, violent contact with the enemy that morning, in palm groves lining the Euphrates River. They needed those attack helicopters as soon as they could get there. Thus started several days of hard fighting that I think of as “The Battle of Hit” (but that’s a telling for another time).

The events that morning shaped my thinking about leadership for the rest of my career, especially about the importance of trust and how it’s created. For other leaders, here are some trust-related ideas to consider:

1. Shared experiences accelerate trust-building. Jeff and I spent months together learning how to be second lieutenants and platoon commanders. We didn’t know it in 1992, but our training experiences together were investments in the “Trifecta of Trust.” Those experiences gave us opportunities to see each other at our best (and not-so best) in ways that established a firm foundation in all three elements. Those investments paid off 12 years later, on that early October morning.

2. There is a hard-nosed benefit to putting effort into building trust. High trust organizations are characterized by lower turnover, more engaged employees, and higher profitability. Zenger Folkman’s research showed that leaders who actively work on it show dramatic improvement in their ability to build trust.

3. Building trust increases an organization’s competitive advantage. My 2004 experience in Anbar brought this home to me in a visceral way. There were so many distractors, like a grueling schedule, extreme heat, and physical danger. Being able to trust others, like Jeff, allowed me to move past those distractors and focus on the job to be done. I learned that when people in an organization trust each other, the hard challenges become hurdles they can get over together.

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