Lessons from a Foxhole: The Importance of Trust in Leadership

Leadership is built on trust. That’s not a ground-breaking revelation, but I’m not talking about the surface-level trust that comes from a trust-fall and participating in a team-building exercise. The trust I’m talking about goes deeper.

The Foxhole

I once worked with a high school basketball team. At the beginning of the season, the coach named one of his players team captain. The coach later revealed to me that he chose the team captain based on the boy’s character and leadership potential.

About a month later, after weeks of intense practice preparing for the upcoming season, the coach led his team through an exercise called “The Foxhole.” It is an exercise that I encourage all teams to execute.

The Foxhole is based off of military jargon. In trench warfare, members of the same team would dig a hole dubbed a “foxhole.” The team would live in the foxhole, eating, sleeping, and fighting together. There was no world outside of the foxhole. The men inside that hole lived and died as one. They became closer than brothers and literally trusted each other with their lives.

The Foxhole exercise run by this coach was for each member of the team to imagine they were in battle and dug into a foxhole. In their foxhole would be three other members of their team. In this exercise, each team member had to choose three teammates to accompany them in that foxhole.

The coach had his team take ten minutes to think about their answers without speaking to anyone. Then, when the time was up, he had them write their foxholes down and submit them.

On a team of a dozen kids, there were a dozen different combinations of foxholes. There was, however, one similarity in each of the foxholes: every single member of that team included their team captain in their foxhole.

The coach later told me that it was at that moment, when he saw this, that he realized that he had made the right choice in team captain. In a life-or-death situation, each member of his team wanted their team captain at their back.

Leadership is about your team knowing that you have their back.

What trust looks like

If things are ever going to go sideways, a team needs to trust that their leader is going to have their back. That’s the kind of trust that leadership requires.

I have talked to many people about leadership, and one of the complaints I hear far too often is that people don’t trust their leaders to have their backs. They see their leaders as middlemen rather than leaders. These are the managers who will throw their team under the bus in order to curry favour with the CEO. These are the principals who will ignore the complaints of their teachers because they only care about input from their Board of Trustees. That does not garner trust. That is not leadership.

So how do you build that kind of trust? I have a few suggestions for you.

Trust requires:

1. Building caring relationships

Stop and think for a moment about the people in your foxhole. This is a great exercise that you should do in-depth, but for now just quickly think about the top three to five people who would be in your foxhole. Got them? Great. Now, what do they all have in common?

If you are like most people, the people in your foxhole all share one important characteristic: they are people who care about you and your well-being.

This seems obvious, but it is important to building trust.

We trust people who care about us.

If you build a positive relationship and that other person knows that you actually care about their well-being, they will want you in their foxhole. And that is a leadership win.

2. Practicing competency

Go back and think about the people who are in your foxhole. I bet you didn’t choose people who are incompetent. We don’t trust incompetent people. Think about it. If your neck is on the line, you want to be able to trust someone who knows what they’re doing.

If you want people to trust you, they need to trust your ability.

3. Demonstrating integrity

Think about your foxhole again. These are the people who you trust with your life. Are any of them particularly untrustworthy? Probably not. You trust them because they have demonstrated in the past that they are trustworthy.

In other words, we naturally trust people who demonstrate that they are trustworthy. Again, it seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget. If you want people to trust you, walk in integrity. That means doing the right thing, even when nobody is looking.

Dynamic lessons

In short, if you want people to trust you, you have to prove that you are worthy of their trust.

We looked at three ways you can earn your team’s trust:

  1. Building caring relationships. People will naturally trust people who demonstrate that they care about them, so build trust by showing that you care.
  2. Practicing competency. You don’t have to be the best at everything that you do, but if you want people to trust you, you have to demonstrate that you know what you’re doing.
  3. Demonstrate integrity. People are usually pretty good judges of character. So do the right thing, even when no one is looking. Then, when people are looking, they’ll see someone who is trustworthy.

What are your thoughts on building trust in the workplace. How do you build trust?

Books that influenced this article:

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You by John C. Maxwell

Leadership is an Art by Max De Pree

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