Won’t live to see 20…

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My father-in-law is one of my favorite people in this world and I am his favorite daughter-in-law. We have a special relationship. When we visit, we spend hours talking about his time serving in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II and his time as an executive at Chrysler. He is fascinated to talk to me about the work I do in Leadership Development and my background in psychology. He refers to Leadership Development as “Charm School.” When we talk, he is convinced that I am always psychoanalyzing him. I’m not, but I can’t resist throwing in a “how does that make you feel?” in response.

This past summer I interviewed him on video about his time in World War II. He enlisted at 17 because it was what was expected. He was deployed at 18 and didn’t believe he would live to see 20. Imagine that for a moment. Going into a situation where you don’t think you are going to live to see the outcome or even the next year. You are surrounded by people in the exact same situation. It raises fear, makes you cling tight to those around you daily, and forms intense bonds.

When he was deployed, he was assigned to a squadron and paired up with a flight crew. They did not choose each other. They were assigned to one another, with each person playing a specific role. They learned to trust each other through their flight training, practicing formations, drills and emergency strategies. They learned how to work as a team. My father-in-law said that he wasn’t inspired by the famous World War II leaders. He said it was his crew members that meant the most to him, inspired him to face that fear daily and get on the plane. They had to trust one another with their lives. Their leadership and actions were most important to one another.

After flying 30 missions together, their pilot had received enough flight points to return home. The crew was assigned a new co-pilot. After one flight, they immediately didn’t trust him. After a terrible flight and crash landing, they feared he would get them killed. They went directly to him, told him he didn’t have the skills to be a pilot, and refused to fly with him. This type of revolting did not go over well; they maintained their courage to stand firm and refuse to go up.

We all encounter work situations that bring team trust into question. Trust is like a muscle that must be exercised to become strong. It won’t happen overnight and can’t be rushed. With attention and focus, it can increase performance and engagement. The Washington Post describes Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and what leaders can be done to build trust on teams:

  • The leader serves as a role model: be credible in both skill and actions on the team

  • Team members learn about each other as people: share personal histories, hobbies, childhood experiences, family stories – anything to help relate as people

  • Keep team members informed: be accessible, transparent, and address concerns on teams

  • Organize team-building activities: unite on physical and mental challenges, highlighting individual strengths and create bonding

  • Listen with respect and show empathy: show care and interest in each individual team member

  • Share greatest contributions: Tell each other their greatest contributions to the team as well as areas of improvement. 

We often feel like there isn’t time to start teaming activities and build the foundation for trust. Not doing so only slows us down. Without doing so, teams may not be get airborne and will stay grounded. Laying a foundation of transparency, open communication, respect for each other, and getting to know each other are important for a high performing team. As Leaders, our responsibility is to intentionally plan activities that will cultivate trust. It may slow down the beginning of a project, but it will allow the team to be higher performing as the project gets underway. Trust isn’t accidental or a byproduct. Trust is formed by active creation and cultivation. The best leaders know this, plan for it, and carefully watch for anything that may cause erosion.

My father-in-law was fortunate to escalate the situation, live to see 20, and many decades beyond. While it seemed there wasn’t time to stop and build trust across the flight crew, the newly formed team would have been more functional if given the chance to form as a team. A few thoughtful activities preflight would have allowed the co-pilot to act as a role model and establish credibility. The crew could have established their newly formed team by sharing personal stories with him. The crew would have been more open to him as a co-pilot if they had been informed about the changes and could practice team-building drills as they did with the first pilot. 

Not long after this team formed, the war ended. My father-in-law was in London at the time and heard Winston Churchill address the masses. (Side note – while not inspired by famous World War II leaders, my father-in-law did give an exception to Winston Churchill and found his speeches very inspiring).

This quote from Winston Churchill perhaps best summarizes the intention of trust on a team: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” 

What accomplishments have been possible because you consciously made the time to build trust on a team?