#Leadership: A Bedrock of Trust

Leadership must be built upon a bedrock of trust.  

This need is obvious in combat, when soldiers must trust their officers to make sound judgment and not to risk the lives and safety of their men needlessly or carelessly.  In turn, officers must trust their soldiers to do their duty, and to strive to fulfill not only the specific order given, but the spirit of what the mission is trying to accomplish.

Equally important, but often overlooked, is the need for trust in the staff roles so critical to the functioning of our armed forces.  If we want our military to continue to evolve and advance, we require the overall organization – and the individual men and women who comprise it – to innovate.  Innovation requires personal and professional risk: of failing to achieve an objective, trying something new that doesn’t work, and possibly looking foolish in the eyes of those we respect and report to.  That risk requires trust.

Yet we often fail to take the time to purposefully build that sense of trust.  Small critical actions and behaviors that can have a large impact in the long run are abandoned in a rush to get “just a little more” done, or to complete a task “just a little bit” faster.  Leaders worry about how they will be perceived and judged if the people under them fail, regardless of the consequence of that failure (or lack thereof).

Yet if trust is so critical to our own success as leaders and to enabling the success of those who we are mentoring and leading, we must take the time to build that bedrock today--before we have to rely on it in a time of need.  How can we do that?

Psychologists and organizational behavior experts argue there are four key elements critical to establishing trust:  compassion, communication, competency, and consistency.   

  • Compassion comes from a belief that individuals care for each other and will work to protect each other, as well as protect those they care for.
  • Communication is the two-way sharing of information, both positive and negative, that leads to the perception of openness and honesty.  
  • Competence emerges through direct viewing of behaviors and actions, as well as from an awareness of external measures (awards won, rank achieved, etc.).  
  • Consistency occurs after numerous and frequent interactions; it is measured in both words and actions, and enables predictability, reducing threatening feelings, and increasing feelings of safety.

Rather than providing a theoretical discussion of trust, analyzing a leader’s performance from history, or giving recommendations completely out of context, this article will analyze a presentation General Mark Welsh gave at the Air Force Academy in November 2011, breaking down that presentation, segment by segment, and showing how Welsh systematically (if perhaps unintentionally) built the audience’s trust in him by repeatedly demonstrating and reinforcing the four traits of compassion, communication, competency, and consistency.

The rest of this article will include short, individual video clips from the speech, often out of order from his presentation, interspersed with analysis.  For those interested in seeing it in full, Welsh’s presentation can be found in full here.


Of the four traits, Welsh places the strongest emphasis on compassion during his presentation.  Early on, he demonstrates his own feelings of love and compassion for those closest to him – his wife, sons, and father.  You see it in how he introduces and talks about his wife at the beginning of the presentation:

And again later as he discusses the relationship between his son and his father:

In the second clip, Welsh demonstrates awareness of the compassion that exists between two other people (in this case, his son and his father).  This awareness is critical, as part of compassion is understanding and protecting those someone else cares for.  You see this again when Welsh tells a story of his young son, Matt, and the role he played protecting a basketball teammate:

You can tell from how Welsh tells this story – with a father’s pride – that he values the compassion his son shows the other boy.

Compassion requires a level of empathy that many leaders struggle with, not because they lack it, but because they don’t know how to express it without being worried they will appear weak. Welsh engaged with the cadets around their own fears and concerns – ones he shared early in his career, too – and tells them the story of airmen who embraced those fears and thrived:

Former Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno has described “the trust between Soldiers and leaders that we will take care of each other.”   Welsh speaks to this, but addresses it not by bragging about his accomplishments, but by talking openly about one of his failures:

He contrasts that with a story of a pilot who was willing to risk their life to rescue a downed pilot during the Gulf War.  Welsh’s words describe the respect he has, but it’s the emotion in his voice that best demonstrates his compassion:


It is easy to talk about positive news when you are a leader.  It’s much harder to talk about negative information, and especially to do it in a way that informs without causing undue alarm. Welsh has already spoken about positive aspects of service – how the cadets will thrive and make an impact in the world – but he also candidly addresses the negative.  

Those bad guys you’re killing?  “They’re also brothers, fathers, husbands, sons, next door neighbors, friends and family members.”

After showing gun camera footage:  “There’s nothing pretty about what you just saw.  There’s nothing glorious about it.  There’s nothing cool about it.  It’s ugly,” he says.  “But somebody’s got to be good at it.”

It is also a business that costs our fellow service members their lives.  We often know the story of their sacrifice, but too often overlook who they were as a person:

This emphasis on these warriors as individuals – people who were cadets only a few years earlier – brings into stark resolution the risks these cadets will soon face.  Welsh balances this with a reminder that all of these individuals made a difference in their lives, and the cadets will, too.  He reinforces his communication with compassion by again demonstrating that he understands what the people he is talking to are worried about.


Service members don’t wear military decorations on their uniforms to feel good about themselves, but to tell others the story of their careers and accomplishments.  Listen to Welsh tell the story of his father’s service:

Welsh repeated this act when introducing Dave Williamson, his Command Chief:  

Welsh summed up their lives in seconds, and every cadet in that audience understood who they were, and what they had accomplished during their time in uniform.

For the cadets, daily life often involves an emphasis on detail beyond what seems logical or necessary.  Yet, the details speak to issues of competency, and the failure to focus on the details can have a profound impact.  Welsh spends several minutes talking about the death of four of his classmates, and shows how each died, in part, due to small details:

As Welsh points out, “the fact that your socks are rolled a certain way doesn’t matter, it’s that you pay attention to detail” that is being evaluated, and that really matters.


By definition, it’s hard for an individual to demonstrate consistency during one single interaction or presentation.  Yet, Welsh touches upon it through his words and his behavior.

In his story about his son’s basketball team, Welsh talks about Matt’s consistency in words and deeds:  “Matt has credibility.  […]  If he says it, he means it.  If he tells you he’s going to kick your butt, you have a decision to make, because he’s going to try.”

Welsh also repeatedly gets his audience laughing during his 50-minute presentation.  

“She’s a babe.”
“He wanted them to know he probably wouldn’t play very well on Saturday… but I think they knew anyway.”
“Give him some street cred with his peeps.”

It’s easy enough for a leader to tell a joke, even when they’re not otherwise funny.  It’s nearly impossible to keep it up as easily as Welsh does if it doesn’t come naturally.  It’s obvious he has a sense of humor, a characteristic that likely frequently comes out during interactions with him, increasing feelings of safety.  


We demand a lot of the people who work for us.  They deserve to have a sense of trust in us as a leader and trust in the soundness of our actions and decisions.  We owe it to them to take the steps necessary to build this trust early in our relationship, and to maintain it through every act and interaction with them, by demonstrating compassion, communication, competency, and consistency in all that we do.

If one of the most senior leaders in the United States military can find time to do it, so can everyone else.

PJ Neal is currently the Director of Leadership Programs at Harvard Business Publishing and the editor of the forthcoming United States Naval Institute Guide to Mentoring.

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