Trust: The foundation of who we are

SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Standing for hundreds of years as a symbol of strength and resolve, the Great Wall of China extends for a formidable 3,948 miles as the world's longest man-made structure.

That's pretty impressive, but what does the Great Wall of China have to do with trust and the United States Air Force?

It all comes down to the foundation. In the 5th century BC, when construction first began, the wall was primarily built of mud, stone and wood. These materials failed to provide a lasting foundation and over time, much of the structure crumbled away. Several hundred years later, bricks and mortar became the materials of choice. Today, portions of the wall built on the stronger foundation remain standing as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The lesson learned from the Great Wall is simply this: Start with a solid foundation. The foundation supports everything else and enables the structure to remain strong over time.

Like any enduring structure, our Air Force continues to thrive because it, too, is built on a solid foundation. That foundation is not comprised of brick and mortar, but of trust-- the essential building block of our individual Airmen and organizational success. Without it, the Air Force wouldn't survive. It's just that important.
Our nation depends on us and entrusts us with an incredible amount of responsibility. Whether you're an Airman Basic or General Officer, part of that responsibility is to always live up to the trust of those who count on us to do the right thing. This timeless truth was forever reinforced early in my career as a young Captain stationed at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.

An Unforgettable Flight

One of the responsibilities I had as a C-141 Aircraft Commander was to transport nuclear material. During a mission to Europe, the wing commander of the installation wanted to come aboard the aircraft to see what was going on. The trouble was he was not on the controlled entry list. I respectfully explained to the Colonel that to come on board he would need to be added to the list. This was not what he wanted to hear. I'll never forget his next words to me, "I am the wing commander, and I am going to enter the aircraft." I proceeded to tell him, "Sir, you can't do that; I'll be forced to use the duress word." Well, that did not go over well. He said some words I'd rather not repeat and briskly walked away.

After that, I was certain I'd be in trouble. But, as uncomfortable as the situation was, I still had to fly the mission. The entire flight, I worried that my once promising career was now in jeopardy. Sure enough, upon landing, I received a yellow sheet of paper telling me to call my squadron commander at home station. And as you can imagine, my mind went wild.

As it turns out, that wing commander did call the Numbered Air Force Commander, who called the USAFE Commander, who called the Mobility Airlift Command Commander, which led to a round-robin call back down the chain to my squadron commander. In short, my name was mud. Yet when I talked to my squadron commander, Lt Col Joe Patrazio, he said, "Ray, you did the right thing." I said, "But, Sir" and he cut me off saying, "Ray, I trust you."

Those four simple words had a lasting impact. I learned that in the end, it all boiled down to the unequivocal trust my commander had placed in me to make the right decisions, no questions asked. His trust empowered me to safely execute a nuclear mission, standing up to do the right thing at all costs. It made me realize that while it's easy to trust yourself, as a leader, it's critically important to trust others too.

In the Air Force, trust is implied because of who we are. I have always told my Airmen, "I will give you the keys to my car and let you drive my children downtown because I trust you." I know that because you're an Airman you will act with integrity at all times - and I wouldn't want to operate any other way.

By trusting our subordinates, we empower them to do the right thing, backing them up with a solid foundation that strengthens their resolve. Today that foundation of trust is more important than ever. We trust our Explosives Ordnance Disposal technicians to execute their mission by the book and keep our forward operating bases safe across the AOR. We trust Security Forces to remain alert and focused 24-7. We trust that our Intelligence Analysts, Tacticians, and Weather Forecasters will accurately assess mission conditions and prepare our crews. We trust our Maintainers and Aircrews to operate safely and effectively on every single sortie. The list could go on and on because every single Airman is entrusted to be ready whenever our Nation calls.

Trust is that powerful. By trusting others - and living up to the trust others place in us - we enable our Air Force to withstand the test of time. Trust is the foundation of everything we do, it's just that simple.

(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of leadership articles written by Gen. Raymond E. Johns Jr., AMC commander.)