Are you a Servant Leader?

  • Published
  • By Lt Col D.W. Schmidt
  • 97th Training Squadron, commander
What makes a good leader? Anyone who has spent any amount of time in the military or attended a Professional Military Education course has spent time discussing the definition of leadership and what it means to them. One of the most basic definitions of leadership is influencing people to do things they would not otherwise do themselves. How a leader goes about instilling this influence gets to the heart of what kind of leader they are. There are many styles, from the dictator style to the laissez-faire style and everything in between. One style that has been around for awhile, but is not frequently discussed in military circles is the servant leader.

In its most basic form, a servant leader serves the people of an organization rather than the organization serving the leader. By focusing his or her attention on the needs of the people in the organization, servant leaders build an organizational culture in which subordinates are empowered to get the mission done and then encouraged to do it. Additionally, a servant leader, and by default a servant organization has a responsibility to customer service. The words, "that's not my job" are rarely spoken; instead, customers hear, "how I can do to help you." The entire organization feels a sense of responsibility to help those it serves, whether an individual customer or another organization. It is about building an attitude within the organization of serving others first.

To better understand what servant leadership is we must also understand what it is not. Servant leaders work with their subordinates to find solutions rather than dictating to them how things will happen. Instead of being a leader who tries to have all the answers, a servant leader uses the functional experts in the organization in a more collaborative method. This is not to say servant leaders are not decisive or absolved of their responsibilities when in command. It means the leader cultivates the organization in a way that the best answers are presented for the commander or leader to act upon. It also means the leader builds a culture within the unit that new ideas and problems can be brought forward for discussion without fear of reprisal or condemnation.

While this style of leadership may appear intuitive, however it frequently is not. The Air Force attempted to build a type of servant culture when it experimented with Total Quality Management in the early 1990s. Unfortunately the system failed, partly because the focus was too much on processes rather than actually building a culture where people genuinely cared about their customers. As a new commander, I have had members of my squadron come to me with issues needing attention, and then apologize for taking up my time. This has given me a great opportunity to assure them they are not wasting my time, as my job is to empower them to do theirs. Helping solve problems is an important part of command and one I enjoy very much. It has also given me cause to reflect on what I can do better to serve the needs of my squadron, while ensuring I am providing the right atmosphere to allow the mission to succeed in a way that best serves our own customers within the Wing and the Air Force. While commanders are certainly busy, taking the time to work with each person on the issues they present gets to the heart of servant leadership. If a leader feels that their job is only to dictate actions for others to accomplish, they will not be very successful.

Is servant leadership the perfect solution to all situations? Of course not, as leadership is dynamic and situational. This style takes time to develop, as a servant leader needs time to cultivate the organizational culture. However, given enough time, it can be a very effective style that leaves the organization stronger, even when the leader has moved on to new adventures. In the Air Force, many practice this style of leadership, often without even knowing it. These leaders tend to be the ones revered for taking care of the people and then letting the people take care of the mission. It is these leaders that make it a joy to serve in our great Air Force!