Be willing to learn and to trust

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brady J. Vaira
  • 470th Air Base Squadron
A few weeks ago, with the temperature starting to get colder, the days starting to get shorter, the leaves turning and the sky tending to be a little bit cloudier, we were having a squadron leadership meeting. Our topic was one that has been talked about, written about, briefed on, presented on, briefed in our PME, broadcasted on AFN and engrained in our Airman's Creed..."wingman." As we went around the table sharing best ideas, past successes and fresh, new ideas, there was one constant theme I picked up on that underpinned the discussion and that was "trust."

Establishing a culture of trust is hard work that takes time, dedication and commitment. There are many different levels of trust; to include trust in the institution, trust in leaders, trust in peers and trust in our wingmen.

I would like to touch on trust in leaders as I believe it sets a culture that is the foundation for trust in peers and trust in wingmen and ultimately, trust in the institution.

For the Mighty Bison of the 470th Air Base Squadron, the culture of trust in leaders starts with me. How do I create that culture? By understanding that trust is a two-way street and that I control one of those lanes; I must demonstrate trust in my squadron's leaders and experts at ALL levels. It can't be faked and must be genuine. For me, it comes down to two principles that I have tried to stick to for building trust:

1)  United States Airmen are the world's best and brightest; I can trust in their expertise and experience.

I would like to share a story that solidified my belief in the capabilities, expertise and experience of our Airmen and why I truly trust them. My first duty station after completing all my initial training as an airfield operations officer was Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. I arrived complete with a Master's Degree I had completed in ROTC, a plaque for my wall that said I had done really well at my Officer's Air Traffic Control training course and a hundred-plus hours of private pilot time. It was safe to say I was confident and ready as I came into the "Home of the Fighter Pilot" and one of the Air Force's busiest and most complex ATC environments. I was assigned as the airfield operations flight deputy commander, second in charge of all Airfield Management, Air Traffic Control (tower and radar), Automation Specialists and Terminal Instrument Procedures Specialists (TERPS). 

For ATC, my very first trainer to get me checked out in the approach control position was a very young Senior Airman. The first day we sat down behind the radar scope to talk to live traffic I remember she told me, "Sir...I will let you go on your own until you get into trouble and then I will step in." I don't remember exactly, but I probably made it on my own for about 10 minutes! She took over, fixed the mess I had gotten myself into (while explaining and providing feedback) and we continued this process for the next few hours. It was a humbling, yet a learning experience that stuck with me. Through time and observation I came to realize that every rated controller in the facility had (and would always have) more ATC experience and expertise than me. Their primary mission was to control air traffic and mine was to be the leader of the airfield operations flight, and as that leader I absolutely knew I could trust the input of the experts in that ATC facility...all the way from that young Senior Airman to the chief controller. The same was true with the airfield management experts, the automation experts, the TERPS experts and every other core functional area. 

I shared that story at my first commander's call to stress the importance that I place on establishing a culture of trust. In a squadron of 36 Air Force Specialty Codes, 30+ civilian position descriptions and 24 functional areas, there is no way I can be the expert on everything, but I can rest easy knowing that the Airmen and leaders in the squadron are those experts and they have the experience. 

Just because I know some may be thinking is not completely blind trust and there are "trust but verify" moments, but I try very hard not to overdue the "trust but verify" on every input and decision that comes up. I have seen the positive results of trusting and empowering leaders at all levels and how it can create better peer-to-peer trust and ultimately a better wingman trust.

2) Listening

The other component that I believe is key to establishing trust is to perfect the art of listening. To quote James Hunter from his book, "The World's Most Powerful Leadership Principle," "One of the most powerful dynamics of human interaction is when people feel as though they have been heard. Really heard."

Being genuine and empathetic in your listening, giving it your full attention and time, and listening without judgement is one of the most helpful things a person can do to build trust and rapport. Becoming a better listener takes motivation to change and grow, to break old habits and to make the commitment to practice, practice, practice.

So, as we get ready for the winter season to set in and we talk about being good wingmen and leaders, let's not forget to work on building a culture of trust.

I will leave you with a quote from General McChrystal's TED talk titled, "Listen, Learn...then Lead:" 

"I came to believe that a leader isn't good because they're right. They're good because they're willing to learn and to trust."