The Meaning of a Uniform

Every Police, Fire and Emergency Service (PF&ES) in Australia, as in most other countries in the world, wears a uniform with a badge on each shoulder. When I ask members of PF&ES what the badge symbolises, the usual response is a reflection of the culture of their organisation, a branding element that defines and distinguishes not only what they do, why they are different to other Services, and also what it means to them personally.

Whilst these responses are not wrong, they miss the point as they tend to focus the intent towards the industry, i.e. as hard as it is to hear, we can be somewhat self-serving. I would strongly argue that if you put on a uniform with a badge on each shoulder that represents a PF&ES organisation in Australia, you are asking someone to trust you, both personally and organisationally.

 In this country when we put on a uniform, we have the great privilege of assuming an automatic level of trust between those that we aim to serve and ourselves.

Uniforms are a strong symbol in any country. However, their meaning attached to the symbology varies across the world. In some countries if I was to put on a uniform and walk into a community, people would hand over money to avoid trouble and stay on side with the authorities. In other words, the uniform is a symbol of corruption. If I was to go to another corner of the world and put on a uniform and walk into a community, the women and children would run for their lives and the men would take up arms. In other words, it is a symbol of death and destruction.

However, in this country when we put on a uniform, we have the great privilege of assuming an automatic level of trust between those that we aim to serve and ourselves. This privilege extends both directly and indirectly. Even those within our Services who do not wear a uniform are still entrusted by the community by direct association with the uniform that represents their Service.

Where does trust begin?

I have also often been asked what defines a successful operation. My answer, ’maintain the trust and confidence of the community we serve before, during and after the adversity of disaster (and that includes natural and man-made disasters)’, and whilst it sounds simple the challenge is significant.

Generally, we are very quick to place the burden of trust onto someone else, but in reality, it has to start with self. If you do not trust yourself, and you do not have a personal and informed view of what trust looks like for you, then you will struggle to honour the code of a uniform.

How important is it?

It is often said that trust is hard to win and easy to lose, which is very true. Trust is an attribute that underpins every relationship you will ever have in your life, whether personal or professional. If you do not value it, understand it, commit to it and improve upon it, then your relationships and your leadership will suffer.

Trust is hard work. It forces us to maintain our integrity at all times. It insists that our words and our actions always align. It demands that we have sufficient humility to acknowledge when we are wrong or when we have wronged others and to forgive ourselves or seek the forgiveness of others. It requires us to exercise the courage to speak to the truth of a matter regardless of the personal cost to our egos. It expects us to derive our thoughts, words and actions from a motivation for the benefit of others and insists that our agenda is clear, unambiguous and open for all to see. It accepts nothing less than exemplary behaviour towards others.

How trust holds us to account

It also expects us to constantly improve upon our knowledge, skills and experience of not only our professional expertise, but of our sense of self and our ability to be a well-balanced, compassionate human being. It will hold us to account for our past, present and future results. It will insist that we utilise to the fullest and constantly improve upon all our talents that are an inherent part of our true nature. Trust accepts nothing less. If we are serious about honouring the code of our uniforms, then we should accept nothing less of ourselves because that is what the community that we serve expects of us.

My personal experiences over the past 33 years have taught me many things, and perhaps the most important lesson has been to trust myself. I have also come to realise how critically important trust is to all of us as managers and leaders. Despite the odds, the unfolding adversities, and what has been presented before me that appeared to be defeating and hopeless, I have learned to trust what my intuition tells me, to check that my deepest motivation has integrity and is ethical, and I have the confidence to act on it.

I have come to realise that the ability to trust myself in such dire circumstances had always resided within me, but without reflection and contemplation, it was never going to surface, and I would have missed the opportunity to take away something positive from a situation that looked to be anything but. This lesson was to play out time and time again throughout my career.

The connection between trust and communities feeling safe

Perhaps the greatest compliment I have ever been given in my 30 years of experience and said to me more than once, was when a member of the community who had never met me but had often seen me on TV or heard me on the radio said ‘Mark, every time I hear you speak, I feel safe’. That one comment made every minute of my 30 years of learning and experiences (many of them hard and painful) worthwhile. When I asked her what she meant by that she said, ’You explain things to us. You treat us as equals, you are never patronising or condescending, and you take responsibility not only for yourself, but for your organisation. We trust you’.

Listen to the podcast

This blog post has a corresponding episode on the Allegorical Life podcast. Play the audio file or jump over to iTunes using the button below to take a listen.

The Allegorical Life Podcast Episode #2: A Short Word on Trust

by Mark Crosweller, AFSM