America's Airmen flourish when their leaders trust them

  • Published
  • By Col. Don J. Bacon
  • 3rd Air Force, Deputy Commander
I've observed two different types of leaders over the years when it comes to trusting the airmen that work for them. In one camp, the leaders want to see the airmen perform first and have the airmen earn their trust. In the other, the leaders automatically trust the airmen and, also, carry high expectations on their performance. My experience has been that the latter group performs the best. Airmen who are trusted from the start have the best morale, want to show the trust bestowed upon them is well founded, want to exceed the expectations placed on them, and have a higher respect for their chain of command.

I recall a squadron deployment earlier in my career that demonstrated this dynamic. As a captain, our squadron deployed to the Middle-East at a location where the "General Order #1" was not in effect and, thus, America's airmen were allowed to drink. We had multiple squadrons deployed to this base. Our squadron commander decided he wanted to ensure our squadron was successful on this deployment and that no one would have an alcohol related incident, so he issued a "no alcohol" order for our squadron for the duration of the deployment. Strangely, we were the only squadron on the base with this "no-drink" prohibition.

As you may imagine, our squadron did not respond well. We followed the order, but many felt our squadron didn't have the trust of the commander. There were also common perceptions that the group was being punished for the potential mistake of one or two, and that our airmen were not being treated like adults and valued patriots. Furthermore, airmen from the other units commented they were glad they were not part of our team. As we all know, airmen have pride in the squadron they belong in, and hate being the butt of jokes from other units. I also saw another interesting dynamic. Although the unit complied with the no drinking order, the professionalism of the unit diminished in other areas, particularly in the area of relationships. The bar had somehow been lowered when it came to expectations.

This is one example of many I've seen when it comes to showing the value of trust. I've concluded that America's Airmen love showing the trust given to them is well founded and, then, exceeding expectations. My experience has been that 99 percent of our airmen represent the nation's very best citizens and will flourish when they know they're trusted and respected. Our job as leaders is to create an environment that enables this great 99 percent to exceed expectations and to hold accountable the 1 percent who demonstrate they can't comply with standards. I'm not a math major, but I've learned that when the 1 percent who don't comply with standards are held accountable and removed from the Air Force, that somehow the impressive 99 percent becomes an even more amazing 100 percent. Unfortunately, I've seen some leaders take the opposite tact and punish the 99 percent in response to the poor behavior of the 1 percent--this is a surefire way to see the overall performance of the 99 percent decrease.

Air Force leaders and supervisors are blessed to be in a wonderful situation, working with our nation's very best citizens. Our airmen, when trained, trusted and empowered to exceed expectations, will perform the unbelievable every time. We see it everyday in Operations IRAQI and ENDURING FREEDOM, and at our homestations.