Are you a servant leader?
By Col. Thomas S. Haines, Jr. , 90th Medical Support Squadron commander
/ Published June 06, 2007
F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. --
In my earlier days in the Air Force, most of my time and attention were focused on what my bosses wanted and expected from me. As I have progressed higher in rank, I have found my focus has shifted more to those who work for me. I no longer spend most of my hours serving those who have formal authority over me; I now find myself serving those over whom I have formal authority. I have found that the higher you rise in the organizational hierarchy, the harder you must work for and the more you actually serve others.
The concept of serving those you lead is called servant-leadership, and it's not an entirely new concept. The term is attributed to Robert Greenleaf who wrote an essay on the subject in 1970; however, Chinese philosophers laid the foundation more than 2,600 years ago in the Tao Te Ching, and the authors of the New Testament talked a lot about it as well. As the concept's modern-day prophet, Greenleaf provided a contemporary description and at least reminded our culture of its value. Greenleaf states that a servant-leader is one who encourages collaboration, trust, listening and the ethical use of power.
The word "servant" often has a negative connotation in our culture; maybe more so in our military culture. Thinking of oneself as a servant might seem weak or not leader-like in ways. After spending years working our way up the ladder and finding ourselves in NCO in charge, flight commander, squadron commander or other leadership roles and positions, it might be hard to consider ourselves servants. We may feel that we are giving away the status we've earned. But remember, servanthood is central to what we do as members of the military, and it is in essence one of the Air Force's core values. Further, our new Airman's Creed states that "we have answered our nation's call." What call? The call to serve.
Being a servant-leader is not giving up your status. It doesn't mean being passive, and it isn't easy. It's essentially a daily decision to put your people and your unit before yourself. Being a servant might in fact be one of the most noble and toughest endeavors you can take on. Over the years, I have collected a list of characteristics that describe a servant-leader:
· Don't have your own agenda; it's not about you.
· Never consider your subordinates as a means to achieving a goal.
· Have your emotions under control.
· Don't always assume you're right, and when you're not, it's OK to say "I was wrong."
· It's OK to say "I don't know" or "I hadn't thought of that."
· Don't lose interest in promoting your reputation.
· Don't change who you are either in stressful times or in calm times, or when required to be directive or when required to be collaborative.
· Don't mind being vulnerable and don't be afraid to say "I need your help."
· Seek accountability from superiors, peers and subordinates alike.
· Be anxious to listen.
· Value relationships. You can manage someone without a relationship, but you can't lead them.
Abraham Lincoln once said, "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." As you earn promotions and advancements in position, I challenge you to become a servant-leader. Use your authority ethically, for the good of your people and for the good of your unit. There's nothing more satisfying than seeing your subordinates be successful, and in the end, you will see your unit's effectiveness increase and its morale improve.