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The Servant Leader

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Photo of Dave Vollmer

Leadership.  It’s hard to imagine—save for beauty and love—another human attribute more examined in literature.  We all think we know what good leadership is and what it means, and yet volumes of professional military education materials for officers and non-commissioned officers alike in our armed forces still can’t clearly define effective leadership in an objective and universal way.  It’s definitely something we know when we see it, but as for how to articulate it as a checklist or as a how-to manual, all attempts will inevitably fall short.  With so much already written on a subject so difficult to pin down, what could I possibly add to the conversation?  Great question.  Perhaps nothing.  Then again, I’ve had the fortune to experience leadership from both sides of the fence, both effective and ineffective.  In today’s world, so many claim to be good leaders or declare others to be good leaders, but how do we know if that’s true?  Do we ask their bosses?  Their subordinates?  Do we compare them to history’s great leaders?  Or do we judge them by their actions?

 

Leadership.  It’s hard to imagine—save for beauty and love—another human attribute more examined in literature.  We all think we know what good leadership is and what it means, and yet volumes of professional military education materials for officers and non-commissioned officers alike in our armed forces still can’t clearly define effective leadership in an objective and universal way.  

I served a little over 22 and a half years in the Air Force as a weather officer, eventually retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.  My career field was especially heavy on the enlisted side relative to most Air Force career fields, so I had opportunities to lead Airmen from Day 1.  As a brand-new Second Lieutenant I led a mobile combat weather team into the Balkans during the NATO peacekeeping mission following the Bosnian Civil War.  At 23 years old I lacked much of the maturity and experience I needed to recognize and emulate good leadership, and I know I made mistakes.  None fatal, thankfully…but the one thing I was mature enough to recognize is how much I’d yet to learn.  As I rose in rank and responsibility I began to think about the attributes of a good leader.  All branches of the US military require regular professional military education (PME) of their officers along with a steady stream of books on military history, tactics, strategy, and—of course—leadership.  I devoured these books and these courses thinking perhaps that I could amass a checklist of all of the things I should be doing to be an effective leader.  Military folks—especially Air Force people—live and die by checklists.  I was also a private pilot and I always used my checklists even for the most mundane cockpit tasks lest I miss a step.

What to put on this leadership checklist?  Well…like most career military members I had my share of good commanders and bad ones.  I have no doubt that this is exactly what civilians experience in the workplace as well.  I looked at what the good ones did and what the bad ones did, trying to do what the former did and avoid what the latter did.  Attributes like “decisive but not arbitrary” and “empathetic” made the list.  “Knowing what motivates their people,” “being engaged in a crisis,” “not micromanaging,” and so on…those were a little more abstract.  Over time I noticed that there was an underlying attribute that was part of every item that went on my list.

What to put on this leadership checklist? Well…like most career military members I had my share of good commanders and bad ones. I have no doubt that this is exactly what civilians experience in the workplace as well. I looked at what the good ones did and what the bad ones did, trying to do what the former did and avoid what the latter did. Attributes like “decisive but not arbitrary” and “empathetic” made the list. “Knowing what motivates their people,” “being engaged in a crisis,” “not micromanaging,” and so on…those were a little more abstract. Over time I noticed that there was an underlying attribute that was part of every item that went on my list.

When I was still a young lieutenant, the Air Force unveiled its three “core values.”  This was in the 90s in the midst of the corporate quality culture movement and the USAF was right in the middle of that.  The three values were simple enough: “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.”  As a testament to the timelessness of these values, the Air Force hasn’t changed them even today.  Interestingly, not to be outdone, the Army shortly thereafter unveiled its own larger set of core values that formed an acronym approximately spelling “leader.”  The three Air Force values are all interconnected…one cannot really exist without the other two.  And as I counseled many an Airman, if your own core value system doesn’t roughly align with that of the Air Force, you’re going to inevitably fail.

It’s the middle one, though, that I think is the common thread through all aspects of effective leadership I was able to compile.  Service before self.  A leader is—firstly—a servant.  We forget this too often.  Even POTUS is a servant of the people.  Politics being what they are in 2020, you’re very hard pressed to find any true servant leaders in the bunch…but they’re out there.  We even use the worlds “public servant.”  That includes elected officials who lead us by serving us.

But what does that mean?  What does that look like?

The three values were simple enough: “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.”  As a testament to the timelessness of these values, the Air Force hasn’t changed them even today.

 

In 2011 I was granted the privilege of a lifetime…command of a squadron.  For an Air Force officer there is no other job so rewarding.  Even group, wing, or higher levels of command are different as you find yourself progressively farther removed from the real work of your units.  As a squadron commander, though, you’re in the thick of it.  Your Airmen typically see you in person every day and you know who they are, what’s important to them, what their ambitions and motivations are, and—unfortunately—what problems they’re facing.  You’re in a position to lift them up to reach their highest potential or take everything from them in an instant.  This is even more true in combat, but I’ll set combat leadership aside since it’s a little less universally applicable.

In a military change of command there’s typically a ritual exchange of the unit’s flag from the outgoing commander to the incoming.  The outgoing commander gets a nice, long speech to discuss the unit’s achievements under his/her command and so on.  The incoming commander typically gets a few minutes.  It’s meant to symbolize everything the incoming commander has yet to learn about the organization and command.  While I’d been the Director of Operations (the #2 guy) for the unit for the previous seven months, I kept my speech dutifully short.  All I really said was that the unit knew exactly what it was doing, that my job was to give them the resources and room they needed to keep succeeding, and that I was honored and privileged to serve them as their commander.  That every day I would challenge myself to be the leader they deserved.  Afterward my Group Commander took me aside.  He’d wanted to spend about an hour or so laying out his expectations for me as a leader.  He concluded that I “got it” and that the talk wasn’t necessary.  

To serve as commander or to serve as a leader, a manager, a boss, a supervisor…  Again, what does that really mean?  Christian theology tells of Christ washing others’ feet, of breaking bread and pouring wine at the Last Supper.  Here’s the picture of the Son of God—God incarnate—humbling himself to the most menial tasks in the service of others, culminating in his death for the sin of all mankind.  Now you needn’t subscribe to Christianity to recognize that this story of servant leadership has had a profound impact on all of Western society…and yet how often do we ignore it in our own applications?  How often do we see leaders expecting others to serve themEffective leadership is the reverse.  Effective leadership is equipping your team with tools, resources, and motivation for success, and then getting the hell out of their way.

 How often do we see leaders expecting others to serve themEffective leadership is the reverse.  Effective leadership is equipping your team with tools, resources, and motivation for success, and then getting the hell out of their way.

In practical application it looks like this.  As a leader, my needs are the needs of the organization.  My wants are for the success of the organization.  When a team member brings me a problem, that’s now my problem.  When the team succeeds, it’s because the team members succeeded.  When the team fails, I own that failure.  Accolades are pushed all the way down to the individual.  Blame is shared up-channel, not for the purposes of punishment but for introspection and improvement.  Now sure, I had to dispense discipline along the way.  I even had to kick a few people out.  But that’s still serving the common good.  Mistakes are forgivable…crimes are not.  Overall, though, “nice guys” are also not typically effective leaders because serving the organization also means accountability; holding yourself and your teammates accountable to the standards of conduct and performance.  People generally are happier in a workplace where standards are clearly articulated and enforced.  Enforced with compassion to be sure, though…every disciplinary process should be taken on its own merit and with awareness of circumstance and purpose of correcting behavior if possible.  In the military this could mean reduction in rank, suspension of pay, even prison time, whereas in the civilian world the stakes are different; typically related to pay and/or termination of employment.  Nevertheless, part of serving as a leader is a willingness—however reluctantly—to do the unpopular and unpleasant thing for the good of the organization.

On the other side of that coin, though, the servant leader spends more of his or her time writing evaluations and awards for his or her people and putting people in for promotions or bonuses they’ve earned.  This means taking time to make sure their people get the recognition they deserve.  An effective leader will even push recognition his or her own individual achievements down-channel since, after all, nothing they accomplish as a leader is done without their team.  As much as I didn’t relish having to discharge my disciplinary role as a leader, it was more than eclipsed by the joy of helping my people get promoted, win awards, get choice assignments, or even get sent to Officer Training School.  None of those things came without mountains of paperwork, but it’s joyful work when it’s in the service of others.

One Friday afternoon my squadron was cleaning up the workspace as they did every Friday afternoon.  I noticed the vacuum cleaner temporarily unattended and grabbed it.  The main workspace had already been vacuumed so I was too late for that, but I figured at least I could vacuum the command section.  As I turned, I felt something—someone—pulling on the vacuum cleaner.  “I got it, sir,” said Senior Airman Jamison.  “You shouldn’t have to clean up.”  “I helped make the mess,” I said.  “I know I don’t have to, but I want to.”  My last conference call of the day was over, I was caught up on paperwork, and honestly all I wanted that afternoon was to be among my team, working with them instead of squirreled away in a back office.  SrA Jamison would have none of it, and short of me ordering her to hand me the vacuum, I made a deal with her that I would at least vacuum my office and take out my own trash.  She seemed uncomfortable with that idea at first but then warmed up to it.  Later she and her teammates would adjust to see me helping set up radar masts and tactical weather observing systems as my time allowed. 

In practical application it looks like this.  As a leader, my needs are the needs of the organization.  My wants are for the success of the organization.  When a team member brings me a problem, that’s now my problem.  When the team succeeds, it’s because the team members succeeded.  When the team fails, I own that failure.  Accolades are pushed all the way down to the individual.  Blame is shared up-channel, not for the purposes of punishment but for introspection and improvement.

My role of course was not one of housekeeper.  Throughout my career I took double shifts or shifts on holidays to free up my younger troops, driven my own HMMWV in convoy because I was the most rested of the crew, or even taken more dangerous missions so my troops didn’t have to.  My service to the squadron as its commander was much more along the lines of fighting for limited budget money, equipment, training time, and the like.  Flying top cover for them and defending against arbitrary and unworkable taskings.  Ensuring their professional development needs were provided for and that we were developing and executing an effective front-line supervisor training program.  That we were meeting our wartime taskings and that combat training was happening in a timely manner.  My unit was the most deployed of the eight squadrons in Air Force Weather Agency at the time and at any given time, anywhere from a quarter to half the squadron was in harm’s way.  Most of my teams were “outside the wire” for long stretches, often temporarily embedded with Army and Special Forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places I’m still not allowed to list here.  Their safety weighed heavily on my heart and mind each night at bedtime.  Never did I conflate their service with my own…my role was as their advocate.

Service before self.  Seems like a simple concept.  We think of the lone soldier storming the machine gun nest to save his squad…or the crew of the Spirit 03 AC-130 mission (look that one up).  The reality is, though, that you can exercise this every day.  It’s not about being the last car out of the parking lot or giving up your sanity for your boss.  All it really means is that your professional needs should always reflect the needs of the organization.  Only when your responsibility to the organization is met do you consider your individual wants and needs.  Could you imagine if Congress functioned that way?

It’s not about being the last car out of the parking lot or giving up your sanity for your boss. All it really means is that your professional needs should always reflect the needs of the organization. Only when your responsibility to the organization is met do you consider your individual wants and needs. Could you imagine if Congress functioned that way?

I’ve been using the word “organization” quite a bit so maybe that’s worth defining as well.  In the context I’m using, an organization really has two pieces: the people and the mission.  Every organization has a mission.  It may be making the best darned 69-cent tacos a fistful of pocket change can buy, or it may be launching nuclear-tipped ICBMs over the North Pole.  Whatever your team is expected to accomplish is its mission.  But the mission can’t happen without people to accomplish it.  In this way they’re inseparable.  In a perfect world there’s no conflict between the people and the mission in an organization, but if 2020 has shown us anything, it ain’t a perfect world.  So…do you—as a leader—serve the people or serve the mission?  Yes.  Okay, then which one is more important?  Both.  No one said this would be easy.  That’s what makes leadership so hard.

In the end, if your example of service before self has been effective, your people should begin to emulate that behavior too.  That may mean giving up a weekend here or missing an opportunity there, but rarely outside of military or first responder work does it mean imminent physical danger.  If you’ve done your job in effectively articulating expectations and the importance of the mission while being a visible, living example of what that looks like, your people should be willing to do the same.  Unfortunately, not everyone will.  Then it’s up to you to determine whether that person could benefit from constructive criticism or a new career.  But effective discipline is a whole other subject perhaps saved for another article.

I don’t claim to be a good leader.  I’ve offered examples of how I’ve emulated effective—which in my mind really means servant—leadership only for illustration.  I’m retired from the military now and my leadership role is no longer professional…it’s personal.  I’m a father to two amazing young men, and I hope I’ve provided them a solid example to follow.  To be an effective parent is to be a servant leader.  How else can you describe it?  Parenthood is sacrifice, is putting the needs of your children before your own, and is intrinsically rewarding.  If you’re a parent, I challenge you to think about how you lead your family and what attributes of parenthood can transfer over to work.  No, don’t treat your employees like children!  But do make sure they have all the resources they need to succeed.  And whether it looks like serving them food at the Thanksgiving potluck in the break room or withholding your own advancement to give a deserving employee a break, let them see you care through your actions.  Make their problems your problems and help equip them solve them.  On this, retired General Colin Powell said it best: “The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help them or concluded that you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”

I was blessed to be entrusted with the command of America’s best at several echelons.  I never took that role for granted, nor did I ever conclude that I was owed that honor.  Every day I challenged myself to measure up.  If you find yourself in a leadership role, I also challenge you to measure up.  I hope you recognize it as the privilege it is…not a right or a reward.  To be a leader is to be called to serve others.  I hope if nothing else you’ll agree with me that we could use a little more servant leadership in America today.

I was blessed to be entrusted with the command of America’s best at several echelons. I never took that role for granted, nor did I ever conclude that I was owed that honor. Every day I challenged myself to measure up. If you find yourself in a leadership role, I also challenge you to measure up. I hope you recognize it as the privilege it is…not a right or a reward. To be a leader is to be called to serve others. I hope if nothing else you’ll agree with me that we could use a little more servant leadership in America today.