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  • Benjamin Martin

The Enemies of Building and Maintaining Trust

Trust is a value and feeling that occurs in ourselves, our teams, and our organizations. Creating and maintaining trust is paramount for leadership, yet unfortunately many do not see the need for giving attention to it. Leaders can make the mistake of assuming that their rank and the ability to say because I said so’s binds people to their decision. But how does one define trust and what does it look like?

Sometimes trust is having confidence in one’s self:

As a leader do you create training opportunities for others to gain more confidence in their skill set? Do you help motivate them to train when they or even you don't feel like it? Do you seek to close the gap of what they think they know with the reality of what they actually do? Leadership has an imperative to help people find their strengths and weaknesses. People who do not know their jobs and lack confidence will act hesitantly, offer excuses, and seek the lowest acceptable level of performance permissible. These people are more rampant in our organizations than we would like to admit. They often stand in opposition to leadership, undermining efforts to create buy-in to our mission, and place their interests before others. Leaders must have courage to persistently pursue rooting out complacency in our organizations and teams.

Complacency stands in the way of knowing your job, yourself, and what you are capable of. Complacency is an enemy of trust.

Sometimes trust is the ability to rely on others:

Individuality thrives in our society. Entitlement and bad attitudes can manifest at any time in our organizations, regardless of tenure. Lone wolf thinking can produce disastrous results, especially when good advice from teammates goes unheeded. But our mission is built upon the construct of the fire service company—we before I. Company affords us the collective brain trust in which any problem can quickly, efficiently, and correctly be addressed. So, if leaders never create training situations which require the synergy and problem solving of teamwork than how do individuals ever learn the value of it? Also, if we don't create these opportunities for teamwork do we inadvertently condone a culture where the perception of self becomes more valuable than the group? But this has to start with leaders who are willing to admit they don’t know it all. Healthy teams have leaders who consistently demonstrate ownership in their mistakes and humility in their knowledge. Toxic leaders refuse to hold themselves accountable and suppress the ideas of their teams because their insecurities won’t allow for others to receive credit.

Humility builds trust. Bravado and self promotion leads to a deterioration of our company’s strength and ability to perform our mission. Selfish thinking and a lack of humility are enemies of trust.

Sometimes trust is acting as good steward’s of the public’s support of our mission:

When we are dispatched for a call we often arrive to find the front door left open waiting for us. Family members usher us into their homes to treat their loved ones without even as much as asking our name, let alone if we are qualified. The public trust is the strongest leverage tool we posses to accomplish tasks others see as impossible. And yet this formidable tool is also incredibly fragile and susceptible to damage—often at our own doing. Perhaps it is a social media post in which someone declares publicly the perceived shortcomings of their department influencing the public’s perception of our ability to do our job.

Maybe it’s the illegal activity or the headline grabbing antics of cheating, lying, or stealing that puts us in the spotlight? Is it also when we allow our narrative to turn from training for risk mitigation to promoting risk aversion? Do we betray our mission when we allow good enough to take root in our organizations, instead of striving for excellence. It is important to remember that you have not yet earned the public’s trust. The folks who preceded us with their good work, hearts of service, and many sacrifices afford us the opportunity to continue to be good stewards of the public’s trust. We will all have moments in which we choose the harder right over the easier wrong. In this moment we will continue to maintain this trust. We should not be surprised that risk exists in our profession, and we cannot tolerate a risk-adverse fire service to replace the one born of selfless service. Train to mitigate risk and plan to operate where it exists.

Treat risk with respect and regard, but do not abandon your duty to preserve the public trust each and every day based on this simple and single construct: Them before us. Any action to the contrary is an enemy of trust.

Call to action:

There is no secret ingredient to creating trust. People both feel and loose trust in others for different reasons. An action that may endear you to your team, may simultaneously destroy your credibility in the eyes of another. For this reason self-awareness and empathy are two powerful tools in a leader’s arsenal. Too often leaders become complacent and expect that regardless of our performance or attitude trust will continue to exist. Check in with your team often, and look for areas that might be generating hard feelings. Push your people for their benefit and not selfish gains, and they will trust and respect you more.

Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of which features leadership training and support for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at

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