The leadership paradox: To lead, we should serve

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James D. Bottomlee
  • 3rd Fighter Training Squadron commander
"Remember son, take care of your Airmen and they will take care of the mission." My grandfather, James L. Bottomlee, spoke these words of wisdom to me on the day I entered the Air Force.

"Grandpa James" served in the U.S. Army Air Forces throughout World War II loading bombs on the B-26 Marauder in the bitter cold of Northern Europe and the scorching heat of North Africa. As a member of America's Greatest Generation, he knew a thing or two about serving America and serving his fellow Soldier.

As you consider the Air Force core value of "Service Before Self," it's easy to assume this core value refers only to the grand idea of serving the nation or serving in the military. While these professional duties are important, I offer that a crucial aspect of this core value is serving others before self.

Placing the needs of co-workers and even subordinates above your own desires will have a transformational impact on you and the culture of your unit. The effect is immediate and like the H1N1 virus -- highly contagious.

The philosophy and practice of giving priority attention to the needs of your colleagues and subordinates is commonly referred to as Servant Leadership. Coined in a 1970s essay, Servant Leadership is the practice of leading by stewardship. A concept proven for centuries, it is rooted in the Golden Rule that you were probably taught as a child: "Treat other people the way you would like to be treated."

True leadership emerges from people whose primary motivation is a deep desire to help others succeed. This concept runs counter to autocratic or monarchy leadership styles where people are viewed as tools or simply cogs in a machine.

As a servant leader, my first desire is to serve; to serve above all else. Then, as a conscious choice, I aspire to lead others in serving. My desire to lead should not be for personal gain such as military rank, money, power or special privileges. Instead, leadership offers me the opportunity to open avenues and remove barriers for my fellow Airmen. In turn, they grow personally and are better prepared and motivated to accomplish the mission.

Anyone and everyone can be a servant leader. It's all about the right attitude and taking action; it's not about rank or grade and definitely not just about talking a good game. Start with speaking respectfully toward other people, regardless of rank. Be restrained and patient, even when you feel really irritated. Encourage the person you notice struggling. Encourage them with action, not just words.

As a squadron commander of cadets at the Air Force Academy, one of my goals was to impart Servant Leadership. On day one of Basic Cadet Training I had my first opportunity. The new cadets were required to drag their luggage up the stairs to the third floor storage room. Naturally, the smallest basic cadets brought the biggest suitcases. What a great Servant Leadership mentoring opportunity.

As I grabbed bags from struggling cadets and began climbing the stairs, all of the basics began sharing the burden of their fellow cadets. They were learning to sacrifice their own desires for the needs of others and accomplishing the mission together. While this was a small initial step, these cadets became a high performance team, gleaning synergy from one another -- serving one another.

As a leader, you are responsible for creating a vision and for ensuring the mission is accomplished. Servant Leadership does not mean that Airmen are not expected to do their jobs or that you should shield them from every tough experience.

In fact, it means you empower them to complete the mission. When you choose to be a steward of your leadership position you won't need to lower the bar; rather you will be able to raise the expectation. Your team will perform so well because they will be motivated and excited by your trust.

If you're looking for ways to incorporate Servant Leadership principles into your leadership toolkit, try the traits illustrated in the following SERVANT acrostic:

S - Sacrifices for others. Consider meeting the needs of others first, even if it will be more work for you.

E - Empowers and encourages. Show your trust in others and don't micro-manage every task.

R - Respectful and restrained. Be patient, especially with the words you choose to speak.

V - Vitality and vigor. Have an enthusiastic attitude about the mission and those accomplishing the mission.

A - Accountable and allegiant. Take ownership of your choices and be loyal to your boss and subordinates.

N - Not self-absorbed. Be humble and proactive to nurture the self-esteem of others.

T - Truthful and trustworthy. Be honest and full of integrity even when giving feedback to subordinates.

Don't wait. Regardless of your rank or job position choose to become a servant leader today. Keep your eyes open for an opportunity to place the needs of someone else in front of your own desires. This attitude of "serving others before self" is what made my grandfather's generation so extraordinary. When put into practice it will have a profound impact on you and the culture of the Air Force.