"Undercover" Leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Christopher Maddox
  • 58th Airlift Squadron Commander
I don't watch much TV these days, but one of the new "reality" shows that recently caught my attention is the CBS show "Undercover Boss." The concept is simple: put executives of major corporations "undercover" working alongside their employees in the trenches of their organization. The executives often fall behind quickly and embarrass themselves while their employees shake their heads and make disparaging comments about their potential for success in their new career field. As you might expect, the CEOs soon realize these critical jobs are not nearly as simple as they appear and in the process they learn a new level of respect for their employees.

In one episode, the CEO of a waste management company is tasked to work alongside a female garbage collector on her route. In a fascinating exchange, the employee educates the executive on the challenges resulting from some recent efficiency-driven changes to company policy. She helps him understand how the new policies have impacted her ability to connect with customers and he is stunned to discover at times she is forced to use a tin can as a restroom because her schedule does not permit a visit to an actual bathroom.

At the end of each episode, the CEOs gather their workforce to inform them of the lessons they have learned during their "undercover" operation. Inevitably, the employees who trained the CEO are given some significant recognition for their efforts. The rewards vary, but what I find most fascinating is the inspired look on the face of all the employees. The employees appear to be motivated by the sacrifices of their leadership and seem to be extremely appreciative their boss took the time to learn about the daily struggles of front-line workers. It is impressive to witness the impact these simple acts of self sacrifice have on the employees of these companies.

While "Undercover Boss" may be a little contrived, I think it demonstrates some great lessons on the effectiveness of servant leadership. Servant leaders can be described in many different ways, but put simply; servant leaders always put the needs of their subordinates ahead of their personal needs and desires. Servant leaders inspire their followers with their personal sacrifice for the betterment of the organization. Many of these lessons are directly transferable to leaders at all levels of our Air Force. We must all remember how the tenets of servant leadership can have a very real impact in our organizations. Whether you lead 10 people or 10,000, practicing effective servant leadership can go a long way in helping achieve the objectives of your organization. We are all disappointed when we get a sense our leaders are making choices based on their own self interest. Quality leaders must demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice their own needs for the betterment of their followers.

As we serve our great nation as members of the U.S. Air Force, we must never forget we also serve the individuals we work with every day. Servant leadership can be practiced by anyone, at any level, at anytime. We must all take the time to climb out from behind our desks and spend it with those unsung heroes who accomplish our mission each and every day. Leaders will gain a new respect for the day to day obstacles their people face and they will inspire their followers to new levels of excellence. I challenge each of us to go "undercover" and find new ways to serve the Airmen around us. If we all challenge ourselves to be better servant leaders, we will find our organizations and our Air Force stronger as a result.