I’ve written several times in this blog about the connections between military leadership and leadership in the commercial sector, particularly in startups. I was sent this blog posting by LCDR Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong on the role trust plays in good leadership. I haven’t read his book, but I do like the emphasis in his write up on trust as a fundamental component of a great leader.
“The Natural Inborn Power of Trust”
By: BJ Armstrong
Trust. In principle it sounds great, but in practice it appears to be a frightening concept to some leaders. Sometimes it even appears ineffective. Over a century ago the naval officer and strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan thought and wrote about the vital importance of trust and its critical place in effective leadership. A founding member of the faculty at the U.S. Navy’s War College, Mahan believed that teaching leadership and command was as important as strategy. His lessons about the interplay between risk and trust are applicable to leaders in all organizations in the 21st Century.
Mahan’s best example of the positive results of trust came from his study of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, the most celebrated Royal Navy officer in history and a renowned combat leader. His victories at defining battles like Copenhagen, The Nile, and Trafalgar have inspired generations of officers and sailors. In his studies of Nelson, Mahan wrote that the British Admiral combined the attributes of conviction, confidence, and most of all: “the natural, inborn power of trust.”
The Admiral’s trust of his people was electrifying. Those who he believed made every effort but failed were recognized with kind words and career support just like those who succeeded. Nelson himself once wrote that “If I ever feel great, it is in never having, in thought, word, or deed, robbed any man of his fair fame.” His men knew it. They knew that if he had any control over the situation he would get them the recognition that they deserved. The result was that one of his officers wrote “he is so good and pleasant that we all wish to do what he likes, without any kind of orders.” The officers that served with him not only helped him lead the Royal Navy to famous victories, but after his death they were the leaders who maintained the global Pax Britannica for half a century.
Nelson wasn’t always “good and pleasant” though. If he felt that a failure came through negligence, inattention, or delinquency to one’s duty, Mahan wrote that “his wrath had all the fierceness of trust betrayed.” There was still accountability, and officers and men were responsible for their actions. It was an equal expectation, regardless of rank or position, and Nelson fought the temptation to give special treatment.
Today some leaders are accused of micro-management or over-supervision. This is especially true in large or bureaucratic organizations and companies, but can also creep into the entrepreneur or small business leader. The desire for success sometimes causes us to think that we have to control everything, and to constantly look over the shoulders of our teammates or employees. Fundamentally this comes down to an issue of trust. Knowing when and how to take risks is an essential part of leadership, and trust has an important role in that. In 1899 Mahan wrote in McClure’s Magazine that, “Failure to dare is often to run the greatest risk.” But without trust in their team very few leaders are able to dare.
Successful leadership requires many attributes. After studying leadership and command throughout naval history Alfred Thayer Mahan came to a very important conclusion. Leaders like Horatio Nelson reach greatness because of “the inborn natural power to trust; to trust himself and others.”
BJ Armstrong is Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy. He studies and writes about the history of naval innovation and strategy. His book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for a Modern Era” is available from The Naval Institute Press. The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and are presented in his personal capacity.”