“Good leaders must first become good servants.”
There are mountains of publications in our society dealing with leadership. In fact, if you type the word “Leadership” in Bing on the internet, you will get 302 million results for your viewing pleasure! However, as we look at our Nation today, it appears there is a leadership void. You can’t pick up the newspaper or watch your favorite 24-hour news station without hearing about another failure in leadership. Sadly, many leaders never learned or seem to have forgotten why they serve.
In this series of posts, I will share the leadership philosophy that I’ve used and tried to consistently emulate over the years. I’ve learned a considerable amount by observing people I view as great leaders as well as some not so great leaders. This style – servant leadership – centers on the word servant, largely because I fundamentally believe that leaders at all levels are entrusted with their position to be in service of others and should not focus on being served. In fact, I’m convinced the majority of leadership challenges we face today stem from those in positions of authority and responsibility tending to think more about themselves then those they are charged to lead—an unfortunate state of affairs that leaves the foundation of leadership shaken.
In his book The Servant James Hunter describes leadership in terms of an upside down pyramid. He calls it a new paradigm, with the CEO on the bottom of the inverted pyramid and the employees at the top. This is a great illustration that shows the role of leaders as they relate to followers.
In my capacity as a Wing Commander at both McConnell AFB, Kansas and Travis AFB, California, I would share a similar story with my new Airmen in the First Term Airmen Course (FTAC). I would begin our time together talking about Servant Leadership by asking a simple question–if a pyramid described our Wing Organization structure where would you be? They would quickly answer unanimously, “At the bottom.” I would then ask, and where would I be? They would answer just as quickly “At the top.” I would then say, where is the majority of the work on our base being done? They would respond, “At the bottom!”
If this is the case (and I certainly believe it is), does it make any sense for me as the leader to be the one being served if I am furthest away from the mission and the work being done every day? Absolutely not! As a Commander, I was given the rare privilege of leading our Nations treasure; the young men and women who selflessly wear the cloth of our Nation and are willing to give their very lives to ensure we continue to enjoy the freedoms we have today. As a leader, our responsibility is to shoulder the weight of the organization and serve those we lead.
My leadership philosophy is simple–it has seven main points. Each main point starts with a letter that happens to spell the word SERVANT. In upcoming posts I will share these seven points of my leadership style with you in greater detail. But I caution you up front; there’s nothing new here–just timeless, age old principles that in their simplicity will give you some food for thought as you reflect on what type of leader you are today and strive to be in the future.
I look forward to reading the rest of your series. Particularly, I am interested in what shouldering the weight of the organization really encompasses.
I imagine one major challenge of servant leadership is getting the workforce, especially middle management, to understand that their job is ultimately to serve the customer, not leadership. Even when a leader makes it clear that his/her role is to serve the workforce, I sometimes sense that the priority lies in providing convenience the boss rather than, and even at the expense of, quality service to the customer.
Have you experienced this challenge in any of your commands? What have you done to get your teams to buy in to the belief that they are truly at the top of the pyramid?
– Lt. Fallin
Thank you for your excellent comments and questions. Shouldering the weight of the organization you lead is a daily challenge. As the leader, those you serve with are watching you every day to see what kind of leader you truly are. By your actions, they will determine whether you are a Servant or whether you desire to be served. As the leader, you are responsible for the successes and the failures, so the weight can often be onerous. You are correct that the challenge of servant leadership is not easy, particularly in our hierarchical society where we are continually challenged to climb the corporate ladder to success and in the military we are told that rank has its privileges. While there are certainly worldly advantages to being a leader, the most intrinsic benefit is the ability to serve in a meaningful way.
As a leader, you need to clearly communicate your vision for your organization and then look for ways to reinforce that vision in regular communication with your folks. Part of that vision is laying out your expectations and your leadership style. As a Commander I had the opportunity to conduct regular Commander Calls and speak in other various forums, plus I published a weekly Commander Connection Newsletter to help share my message. As you communicate this vision to your organization you are “talking the talk” so to speak.
You can’t just “talk the talk,” as your folks will see right through the façade…you also need to “walk the walk!” I want to emphasize I believe the best way to ensure your folks know that you are serious about servant leadership is to live it out on a daily basis by your actions. As the leader, I would challenge you to continually look for ways to put the organization first and demonstrate that you are here to serve. Little things like holding the door for someone, working shoulder to shoulder with members of your organization to learn various aspects of their job, saying hi with a nice smile, taking time to ask how someone is doing and really mean it, having lunch with some members of your team to interact and find out what’s really going on in your organization…those little acts of service go a long way.
In both of my Wing Command tours, I had the honor of serving with great people.I experienced Airmen going out of their way to serve. In their zeal to serve, they will often try to please their leaders through service.it’s in their DNA. The challenge is to channel that energy into serving in a manner that gets the mission done with excellence.
Here is a quick story I will share: When I got to Travis AFB, they had recently privatized their base housing. As part of the contract, they are responsible for mowing the front and side yards of each home, but the occupant needs to keep their back yard mowed. When I checked into my house, they said they would mow my entire yard because I was the Commander. I politely said no thank you–if my Airmen cut their grass, I will cut mine. It’s important for leaders not to gain a sense of entitlement–it’s a slippery slope once you start down that path so I challenge leaders to work hard every day avoiding that pitfall that has taken down so many leaders in the past.
Keep striving to get your team to the top by putting yourself on the bottom…remember it’s not about you! I hope this helps answer your questions as you pursue your leadership journey. I also think you will like the first letter of “SERVANT” so stay tuned for my next blog!
Thank you for the reply. Two things that really stood out for me:
1) Take the energy given to pleasing leaders and channel it toward the mission. – I have rarely seen a shortage of motivation in military members. It makes sense that getting them to apply their motivation in the right areas is a major leadership responsibility.
2) Get your team to the top by putting yourself on the bottom. – There’s only so much you can do to shape the mindset of your team, but you always have control of your own actions. You can always choose to walk the walk by showing them through your actions that you are there to serve.
Looking forward to the “S” blog sir. Thanks again.
– Lt. Fallin
Vech…Sir that is a great article and it is true of your behavior for all the years I have known you. It is great advice.
thanks for taking the time to write it.
Thank you for your service, first and foremost. It is refreshing to see leaders such as yourself acknowledge servant leadership tenants and the importance they play in the success of an organization. At the end of the day, is it not “service before self? “.