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The Power of Trust

March 5, 2019 in

Stephen Covey wrote a great book on the impact of trust on the culture and effectiveness of an organization.  The book, “The Speed of Trust”1 illustrates that trust always has two outcomes – speed and cost.  When trust goes up, costs will go down, and the speed of doing business rises.  Covey also wrote that “Trust is the highest form of human motivation.  It brings out the very best in people.”

As Chief of Staff of the Army, GEN Ray Odierno often emphasized the importance of trust as a critical element in effective leadership.  He once said, “Our profession is built on the bedrock of trust – the trust that must inherently exist among Soldiers, and between Soldiers and their leaders to accomplish their mission in the chaos of war.”2

One of the best examples I have ever studied on the impact of trust among the members of an organization occurred on the 2nd of July 1863 during perhaps the most significant battle of the U.S. Civil War Battle of Gettysburg.  The Union persevered and won the battle, reversing for the first time in two years a strong Confederate Army that seemed at the time invincible. 

The Battle

The commander of the Confederate Army was General Robert E. Lee, and he brought his Army north of the Mason Dixon Line to interdict the Union’s strong industry belt in Pennsylvania and New York. He also wanted to bring the war into the north’s home terrain with the hopes to gain a decisive victory and demoralize the north’s will to continue the fight.  Lee was met by the Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George Meade, and after three days was decisively defeated and forced to retreat.  Gettysburg is often referred to as the “high water mark” because it was the battle that culminated a series of victories by Lee’s Confederate Army and began the two-year descent ultimately leading to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.  The significance of this battle cannot be overstated, because it was this defeat that ultimately led to the preservation of our Republic as we know it today. 

There are numerous significant events that led to the Union’s victory, and over the three days, many of these events were in themselves instrumental to the Union’s ultimate victory.  One of the most heroic and amazing acts of courage, grit, determination, and tenacity, which was bolstered by a culture of trust, respect, and brotherhood, was what the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment did late in the afternoon of July 2nd, 1863.

The Confederate attack on 2 July toward Cemetery Hill (and the center of the Union line) was gaining momentum and forced the Union line in front of the Minnesotans to break, sending Union soldiers running back toward them and through their ranks.  The Second Corps commander, General Winfield Scott Hancock, saw the retreat and needed to buy time to get replacements back into the line to replace the holes left by the retreating troops.  While surveying the damage, Hancock noticed the well-ordered Minnesotans, and while riding up to the Regiment, he met with its commander Colonel William Colvill, and ordered his Regiment to immediately attack into the heart of the advancing Confederate Regiments. 

At the time, Colvill had about 350 troops poised to attack about 1,500 Alabama Confederate soldiers.  Knowing those odds, Hancock also knew his order would mean certain death to the majority of Colville’s Regiment, something not lost on Colvill or his men.    Knowing the consequences, Colvill saluted without hesitation and ordered his men to attack knowing not only the importance of the mission, but the certain death that awaited most of his men.  Still, they moved forward, attacked, and fortunately succeeded.  The attack bought the precious few minutes Hancock needed and preserved the integrity of the Union line on Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top.  But it was also costly. The Minnesotans reportedly suffered 60- 80% casualties (depending on what source you refer to), ultimately making the Regiment combat ineffective.

The Culture

Can you imagine what was going through Colvill and his men’s heads when Hancock rode up with the order to attack directly into that chaos?  Yet upon receiving the order, they did not hesitate in the least.  They did not question, and when told to attack, they obediently moved forward knowing their expected deaths awaited them.  Yet, still they moved forward. 

For the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment to act as they had on that fateful 2 July 1863 day, William Colvill had to have built a culture of trust, confidence and respect within his unit.  And if you study Colvill, you know he was fully loved and respected by his troops, because he would always lead from the front, share hardships, and led with impeccable integrity.  He was an authentic leader who cared for his troops and led with the highest of standards and discipline.  His troops knew he would always be there for them and would never ask them to do something he himself would not have done. 

And as a result, when told to attack knowing the outcome of certain death for most of the unit, they never questioned their order, and executed to perfection what they were tasked to do. 

The “speed of trust.” Perhaps the most important element of an effective leader.

Resources

  1. Covey, S. M. R., & Merrill, R. R. (2006). The speed of trust: The one thing that changes everything. New York, N.Y.: Free Press.
  2. Odierno, Ray. 2013, June 4. “CSA Testimony Before the Senate Armed Services Committee” https://www.army.mil/article/105337/june_4_2013_csa_testimony_before_the_senate_armed_services_committee