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“Your team has to trust you”: Leading by example to build trust in leadership with Wayne Monteith

This week’s Gut Check article reflects on the roles of solid relationships and trust in leadership. It is based off our Lead The Future podcast interview with Wayne Monteith, the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation for the Federal Aviation Administration. 

BIG IDEA

A leader’s most important asset is social capital.

You might think that a 29-year Air Force veteran who spends his days organizing rocket launches would say that his focus as a leader is on safety, or compliance, or a clear chain of command. But when Wayne Monteith talks about being a leader, he stresses the importance of social capital and trust in leadership.  

During the pandemic, Monteith says, he’s been focused on maintaining his relationships with his team while they work remotely. “I’ve met every single dog that belongs to a member of our team,” he says. “The work still goes on, and inherently dangerous business must continue. And one of the things that makes all that work is social capital. Your team has to trust you, and you as the leader have to figure out a way to connect.” 

WHY IT MATTERS

Solid relationships, based on trust in your leadership, are what will get you through challenging times. For this, you must lead by example.  

It’s important to note that Monteith connects the inherently dangerous nature of his team’s work to trust and relationships. When lives are on the line, relationships are not a trivial ‘soft skill’—they’re crucial to getting the job done safely.  

Monteith tells a story about evacuating his team’s base during Hurricane Matthew. After the storm had passed, he had a choice to make: take a helicopter ride with the director of the Kennedy Space Center to survey the damage from the air, or stay on the ground. Monteith not only chose to stay on the ground, he chose to work at the front gate.  

“I personally welcomed every single resident back, thanked them for their patience with us, let them know that if they needed anything, they could call me,” Monteith says. “And it was probably the single most important thing I did during that entire three-year experience. Because a year later, we had to do the same thing for Irma. And the residents were far better prepared, and they knew that we would do everything in our power to keep them safe and keep their property safe. And during those two evacuations, we did not suffer a single injury or casualty to any of our folks.” 

In a time of crisis, trust is more important than ever. Relationships are what will hold your team together and inspire the kind of calm, deliberate action that will get you safely and successfully through a challenge.  

THE IMPACT

Putting yourself on the front line is a powerful way to establish trust in your leadership.

Monteith has a history of putting himself on the front line and leading by example. In Colorado Springs, when he was running the team responsible for GPS (the Global Positioning System), he took on the task of building new base housing for the first time. There wasn’t much interest in the new housing until he made the decision to move his own home from last in line to first.  

“The expectation was, I would be living in Colorado Springs telling people, ‘You go live there, not me,’” Monteith explains. “And I moved out there and said, ‘Come live out here.’ Just looking at it differently and leading by example, we ended up with a waiting list by the time I left.”  

When your team sees that you as a leader are willing to go first, they’re much more likely to trust you and follow your lead. 

WHAT TO PAY ATTENTION TO

Prioritize connection in this time of upheaval.

Many people are talking about getting ‘back to normal’ right now. But in reality, the period we’re living through is less a return to normal and more a new kind of challenge. It’s like when you come back from the space station, Monteith says. “Not only is the world you come back to different, but you’re different. And I think we’re going to be different as we reintegrate back into a more traditional setting.” 

Think of the next six months to a year as your team’s re-entry period. The world has changed, and your team has changed. Prioritize relationships, connection, and trust in your leadership. Be willing to do the equivalent of standing out at that front gate or moving into the first on-base house. 

As a leader, do you know what really matters, when it really matters?

Gut Check for Leaders

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