Service before self… not in spite of self


I’d like to take a minute to reflect on a commonly misunderstood Air Force core value — Service Before Self.

At times, this is used as a justification to prioritize work above all other aspects of our personal lives; spending time with family, making it to the gym, etc.

Interpreting this core value in this manner is missing the mark and runs the risk of Airmen becoming less resilient, and ultimately less effective.

To quote a core values leadership lesson from the Curtis E. Lemay Center, “Service before self does not mean service before family. Airmen have a duty to the Air Force and an equally strong duty to their families. The difference is, there are times when service to the nation requires subordinating the needs of the family.”

On the surface, it could be perceived these priorities are in conflict, but it only appears that way. In reality, as this lesson is taught, they are equally important. In addition to our obligation to the Air Force, we have a responsibility to our family.

In this context, it is fair to interpret “family” as referring to ourselves individually (since we are all sons and daughters), our traditional families, as well as the circle of loved ones in our lives, that often goes beyond blood relatives.

So, how do we balance these two important priorities?

The truth is, it’s hard. The equilibrium is constantly changing and it’s up to us to adjust that balance when necessary. We must figure out how to take care of ourselves as we serve (think of the four pillars of Comprehensive Airmen Fitness – physical, spiritual, mental and social). We have to determine when it’s important to stay late at work to finish a project or when we should leave early and make it to a soccer game, school play, etc.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer I can offer for what that balance should be, or when it should be adjusted.

What I can say is this: we will be better able to reach our professional potential when we’re confident that our loved ones are supportive of our service and we gain that confidence by finding ways to continually reassure them they are still our priority as we serve.

Remember, our core value is service before self, not service in spite of self. Find the balance that works for you in your current capacity and then be ready to adjust it as demands change. It is vital to our overall success that we each take care of ourselves, our family and our loved ones as we serve.