My Unexpected Education About The Power of Vulnerability-Based Trust

Later today I have the extreme pleasure to deliver the keynote address at an All Staff meeting for the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction Program. These men and women do very important work, and I am honored to be joining them.

I will be talking about the power we each have to contribute to the success and health of our respective teams, using The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ as the overarching framework. (If you aren’t familiar with the model, the five behaviors are Build Trust, Engage in Healthy Conflict Around Ideas, Commit to Decisions, Hold Each Other Accountable and Focus On Collective Results).

I like to bring original stories into my talks, which on the one hand keeps it fresh (for me at least) and on the other means I’m always trying something new and untested (which can be risky standing in front of a hundred of people).  That being said, I’m feeling good about my new story, as it’s all about my experience with the “Stand Down” programs I help coordinate each year in the San Francisco Bay Area (East Bay Stand Down and Stand Down on the Delta…if you are interested in helping homeless Veterans, check them out).

Vulnerability-Based Trust at Stand Down

Back to the point…I was looking for a story to illustrate the power of vulnerability-based trust, which is the practice whereby people working together on teams open up to each other and get to know each other on a level that is a bit deeper than the normal, dreary, surface level, around-the-office association.

It dawned on me that my fellow Stand Down volunteers and I embrace vulnerability-based trust every time we welcome Veterans into the Stand Down encampment. For you to understand the next part of the story, I need to tell you just a bit about how a Stand Down works.

In a nutshell, a dedicated group of volunteers spend a year planning a 4-day event held at a fair ground. When the day arrives, approximately 400 homeless or near homeless men and women enter the encampment, staying onsite in large military-style tents for a long weekend. Over the next 96 hours, these heroes have access to a range of services, including medical and dental care, housing support, and job search assistance. Equally, if not more importantly, these people become part of a community of brotherhood and sisterhood. We all really do become “our brothers – or sisters – keepers.”

In my role, I work with a team of about 25 volunteers who each take the title of Tent Leader. The job sounds simple enough…be the “leader” of a group of 20 Veterans for the entirety of the event. The Tent Leader serves as the guide for his or her group – sleeping with them in the tent, eating with them in the chow hall, and supporting them over the course of the four days.

At the start of my tent leader tenure

When I was a rookie Tent Leader at my first Stand Down in 2010, I had no idea what to expect, as I wasn’t really all that familiar with the challenges this population experiences. Just think for a moment how many of your daily routines would be impossible without a permanent address. These men and women face adversity regularly to a degree that I can’t say I’ve ever experienced or fully understand. Sadly, they are far too often treated poorly and with a lack of respect from the people they come across. Do you think that might jade you a bit?

With that as the backdrop, you can understand that when our Veterans arrive at Stand Down, they aren’t necessarily ready to open up and share their life stories. Here’s where the concept of vulnerability-based trust comes into it. As a Tent Leader, I know that my ultimate job is to help each and every person in my tent get the services and support they need. Back to my rookie year, I went in gung ho, making a checklist and using my iD DiSC style (“driver-type” personality if you aren’t familiar with the Everything DiSC tool) to push my guys to go, go, go.

The Value of “Getting to Know” First

Thankfully it didn’t take long for a more experienced Tent Leader, Chris, to pull me aside and tell me to “take it down a notch.” He gave me a crash course in what these Veterans were likely feeling, and he encouraged me to focus less on “getting the job done” and more on “getting to know the men.” I quickly adjusted my actions, and rather than cutting right to the chase, I started to sit with my guys a little more. We started to chat and share. We got to know each other. We became a bit vulnerable to each other. We came to trust each other.

The irony of this approach, of course, is that “getting to know first, then getting the job done” is both more effective (better outcomes) and more efficient (less work). These are things that speak loudly to my affinity to Lean Six Sigma and Process Improvement!  In my initial approach to being a Tent Leader, these men questioned my motives and sincerity, just because they knew nothing about me. Once I slowed down and got to know these men, I was embraced as a friend and trusted advisor who had nothing but their best interests at heart.

Leading is Leading wherever you are

At the end of the day, my role as a Tent Leader at the Stand Down is not all that different from my role as a leader in my own organization. I am responsible for working with my team to deliver results. And as I learned through Stand Down, while it takes time to open up and be vulnerable, it is an investment worth making, as trust is truly the secret weapon that breaks down walls and enables people to do amazing things together.


Brett Cooper

Brett is the visionary President of Integris Performance Advisors, a professional development firm he co-founded to expand the existence of healthy organizations and great places to work. By creatively bringing together concepts from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by Patrick Lencioni), The Leadership Challenge (by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner), and Lean Six Sigma, Brett and his team have influenced thousands of people in government, non-profits and corporate America to work together in more productive, more effective and more human ways. Outside of his role at Integris, Brett dedicates time to serving others in need. He is a volunteer coordinator for the East Bay Stand Down and Stand Down on the Delta, two non-profits serving the needs of San Francisco’s homeless Veteran population. He is also board member and financial sponsor for Partners in Sustainable Learning, whose mission is to bring early childhood education to marginalized communities in the developing world (current projects are underway in Nepal).