I have the honor of speaking with Airmen of all ranks and ages where I get to share my perspectives on the Air Force and a host of other subjects that affect our Airmen every day. During a recent event with a small group of young Airmen, someone asked the commanders present to share “the ‘secrets’ of leadership that [we] have uncovered in our careers.”
It is a compelling question that more experienced and successful leaders have tried to answer. I also found the question interesting because it implies there are secrets to leadership that, once uncovered, grant membership to an exclusive club. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I want to share the greatest lesson I learned in my Air Force career: that leadership is not about me…in fact, it is about everything and everybody else but me. This characteristic of servant leadership amplifies the importance of the Air Force core value “Service Before Self” and affects the way we interact with and treat others. In the process of sharing this lesson, I hope to dispel the myth that leadership is an exclusive membership open to only a select and infallible few.
As you might guess, I was not the greatest adherent to servant leadership early in my career. I joined the Air Force to fly airplanes, and I focused mostly on the technical aspects of my specialty. I worked hard at my job, and I became discouraged when I was overlooked for opportunities I felt I was “owed.” As my service commitment drew near, I started to look elsewhere for the chance to showcase my talents.
I then got to work for a series of leaders who exuded servant leadership. They valued and trusted the people who worked for them and they spent nearly every moment working for the benefit of others. They trained their Airmen, provided them opportunities and celebrated when their subordinates succeeded. I began to emulate this leadership style, and I soon found it more gratifying to see Airmen accomplish something they thought impossible for themselves. I attribute this as the moment when my career started to gain momentum. This is not easy and, although I strive to practice servant leadership every day, I am not perfect and regress more often than I care to admit. Fortunately, the thrill of watching our Airmen execute and accomplish the mission successfully is enough to bring me back in line.
The practice of servant leadership holds implications for how leaders treat subordinates. Summon those moments in your career when you have been “chewed out” by a supervisor when you made mistakes or failed at something. Recall how effective that experience was in changing your behavior. When used sparingly, a tongue-lashing might be useful in changing someone’s behavior. In most instances, those interactions do more harm than good because it leaves people thinking that they are failures. In my experience and in the experience of more successful people than me, leaders who spend time “lifting people up” are more effective at inspiring subordinates to excel.
In the words of retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal leaders “can let you fail and yet not let you be a failure.”
As commanders and leaders, we have opportunities daily to affect and connect with Airmen with whom we interact. Those who have worked with me previously know that I often say that “it is not the message, but the delivery” that determines how effective you are in changing someone’s behavior. We can choose to lift up Airmen with our words and actions or leave them feeling like failures. I think you will find that you will find greater success and satisfaction when you do the former.
Admittedly, servant leadership requires a lot of effort and is difficult to achieve. We all mature and learn at different rates. There are those who are and have been servant leaders throughout their lives. There are people, like me, who take almost eight years before recognizing the value of this leadership style. There are others still who will never get there. My own experience has shown that this is achievable for anyone willing to change their point of view, but putting it into practice can always remain a challenge. The sooner you recognize the positive aspects of servant leadership, the sooner it is you will see service in our Air Force in a different light. You may even see your career take off in ways you never imagined.