Breaking (and Re-Building) Trust

By GEN Michael X. Garrett, FORSCOM Commanding GeneralNovember 2, 2020

This year has not been easy. Not for our Soldiers and their families.  Not for our Army communities…and not for our Army. Our Nation is in the midst of an incredibly complex time in our history – every week seems to bring a new challenge. For many, the events of 2020 have heightened the feelings of isolation and uncertainty – and called into question our trust in the very systems that hold our Nation together.

But, there is hope. In the wake of these unprecedented events, and the tragic events at Fort Hood, the Army paused and took a hard look at itself. We asked ourselves hard questions – faced some uncomfortable truths – and in so doing, learned.

We’ve learned that the trust between our Nation and our Army was strained – and worst of all, we were the ones who let down the Nation. Each suicide, every racist expression, any sexual assault and all instances of sexual harassment undermine the trust America places in us.  As Secretary McCarthy said at this year’s AUSA symposium, “We must be accountable and we must act.”

For the Army, our strategic center of gravity is the trust of the American public. It is the single most important element in what makes us the greatest fighting force ever. Trust is the one thing you can’t surge, yet we allowed corrosive conditions to erode that trust.

That is why we implemented change. This September, I directed FORSCOM Leaders and Soldiers to participate in what we are calling Foundational Training Day. Foundational Training Day aims to strengthen our foundation – People – with the goal of building caring relationships, starting at the Squad level. We are doing this through listening and sensing sessions, counseling, open dialogue, assessing conditions, and making changes.  Just knowing that somebody cares, inspires you to be courageous.

Everyone in the Army is a member of at least one Squad, and it is there we win. Whether it’s at the point of contact with the enemy or implementing meaningful change, the Squad is the building block through which we succeed…or fail.

Through these efforts, we will learn more about one another – the issues that influence our member’s lives, on and off duty – allow leaders to proactively seek solutions, and demonstrate care.

In the best of circumstances, the Army operates in a zero-sum environment – meaning we have finite resources. Aside from trust, the most valuable resource we have is time.  It is the one thing that we can’t get back. I believe that the increasingly high OPTEMPO at the unit level is a significant source of the Army’s trust challenge. We are giving our leaders time through Foundational Training Day: time to invest in our Soldiers, to build trust.

Before we can sincerely earn back the public trust, we can’t take for granted the trust of our People. Some may believe that our issues generate from a lack of caring, or apathy, or degraded leadership skills. I don’t see it that way at all. I know that when our leaders understand this priority and are provided time to invest in their People, they will absolutely do it and do it well.

Our People want to be heard, and leaders must be allowed to slow down and listen, to acknowledge issues, and to address them. Real effort to engage in genuine conversations, coupled with visible action, is how we go about earning trust at the Squad level. In order to fundamentally affect beliefs and behaviors, we must create an environment that aligns with our desired outcomes – where those beliefs and behaviors are practiced, expressed, and supported. And that is what we are trying to achieve through Foundational Training Day.

Make no mistake. Foundational Training Day is not a substitute for engaged leadership. Engaged leadership is the standard, at all times – and frankly, it is what every Soldier deserves. Foundational Training Day is another tool for our leader’s kit bag and a way to hold one another accountable.

Even with clear, established expectations and standards, it can be challenging to hold people accountable. Some people are difficult to hold accountable because they contribute a lot to the Squad. Some because they get defensive. Others because they are intimidating. What I’ve learned throughout my career is that holding others accountable is most effective when done in a genuine and trust-based setting, focused on the team – the Squad.

As members of a Squad, we will strengthen the Total Army by working to eliminate behaviors that erode and break the sacred trust within our ranks and with the Nation. The decision to invest so much of our most precious resource – time – on activities not captured in Readiness Reports is not a distraction from readiness, but rather an enhancement to readiness. Over time, we expect to see improvements in both tangible readiness metrics and the intangible factors that influence unit readiness. If you ask me, we cannot afford not to make this kind of investment. When we know our People and our People know we genuinely care, we all win…and winning matters.