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Servant leadership — a secret weapon for challenging times

  • Published
  • By Col. Donald Holloway
  • 90th Operations Group commander
There are some obvious trends for leaders at all levels within the nuclear enterprise as we begin 2013. The government fiscal environment will be highlighted by less available funding. Airmen entering our Air Force will continue to max the quality scale but will arrive in fewer numbers than past decades. The American people will expect that we continue to flawlessly execute our nuclear mission daily with precision and reliability.

So how can the 90th Missile Wing best prepare for a future highlighted by less funding and personnel, and the same demanding nuclear operations mission? The answer to this question may be found in a leadership philosophy: servant leadership. I first learned about this fascinating leadership concept as a major and my interest peaked after reading a few books on servant leadership. The turning point came as a squadron commander when I had the privilege to witness a servant leader in action at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., - my operations group commander, who provided one of the best examples of a servant-leader I have seen, and reinforced the concepts I had read. Furthermore, the commander of Air University recommended to my group commander class the concept of servant leadership -- he said it changed his leadership philosophy. It also changed mine.

Servant leadership starts with a desire to serve. Serving others is a fundamental, universal human value. Aristotle, when answering what is the essence of life, concluded, "Serve others and do good." Cicero, the great Roman orator and philosopher believed mankind existed so they might do one another good. Martin Luther King, Jr. said "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: what are you doing for others?" Servant leadership requires the kind of humility that brings out the best in both leaders and those they serve.

The essence of servant leadership is to empower others. To push responsibility down to the correct level of the unit, realizing accountability remains with the unit commander. Servant-leadership has a moral base -- the whole point of the service model is to identify and meet the needs of others. It is about paying attention to others and treating them right which builds trust. What sets servant leaders apart from other leaders is they are motivated to make life better for others, not themselves.

A servant leader does not ask, "How can I get power? How can I make people do things?" The servant leader asks, "What do people need? How can I help them to get it? What does my unit need to do? How can I help the wing do it better?"

Finally, servant leaders work hard to ensure the right personnel are recognized. The two most powerful words in the English language are: "Thank You." We sometimes forget to recognize those who need it the most.

There are benefits to the unit when servant leadership is embraced through practices embodied by leaders at all levels, but there are also benefits at the individual level. By focusing on meaning, servant leaders are intrinsically motivated, and can find a way ahead in the most challenging times. George Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela are terrific examples of servant leaders.

Essentially, servant leaders focus on others and become part of something larger than themselves, like providing nuclear deterrence for the United States. As the Mighty Ninety stands ready for the challenges ahead, consider adapting a servant leadership way of life. As servant leaders, it is possible we can better serve each other as we serve this great nation regardless of future challenges.