Servant-Leader philosophy

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Aimee Storm
  • 52nd Force Support Squadron
There are all kinds of family. As an Air National Guardsman, I carry the mantra "Guard is Family." It is a family born of time, growth and experiences.

I have known the Arizona force support squadron chief for 15 years, since she was a staff sergeant, and I was a second lieutenant. I've watched her children grow up and went to her father's funeral. I have found that the active duty, particularly overseas, is family, too; one born more of necessity perhaps rather than time. We work together, shop together and live next door to one another. So I find myself asking, how does one lead in this family or in any family, and for me the answer is the servant-leader philosophy.

Coined by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay "The Servant as Leader," the philosophy espouses, "The servant-leader is servant first ... It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead." Leadership is without ego or desire for power, but solely ensures the needs and best interests of others are served.

Can you better describe the leadership of parents within a family? The good parent puts the needs of the family before him- or herself in most instances and disregards ego and self-interests daily. This is not to say the parent's decisions are made with only the child's desires and individual interests in mind. You do not relegate decision making and discipline for the sake of the individual, but rather make the tough decisions based on the needs of the family, and in the case of the Air Force, that is the overall mission, just as the health and success of the family is a parent's mission.

Greenleaf outlines ten qualities of the servant-leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness (of self and others), persuasion (rather than demanding), conceptualization (seeing the big picture), foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and building community. Through developing and mastering these attributes, the servant-leader gains authority, based on trust, rather than power, based on position.

Some might argue the servant-leader philosophy is incompatible with the military hierarchical structure, that the system is autocratic and leaders must be free to give direct orders without looking for consensus. But the beauty of leadership philosophy is that it delineates not the style - the behaviors or actions of the leader - but rather the traits and values of the leader. Leadership style is how the leader's philosophy, personality and experience manifests into behaviors. You can adapt your leadership style to the given situation, but your philosophy (values) remains your foundation.

Robert Greenleaf's theories are promoted by the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership. Its current CEO, Kent M. Keith, describes several attributes of servant-leaders saying, "They are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses. They are good at listening to colleagues and customers, so they know what people need and can focus on providing it. They develop their colleagues, coach and mentor them, and unleash their energy and intelligence. They have foresight, and act on that foresight, for the long-term benefit of their organizations." These are qualities to which I aspire, to benefit members of all my family.

Greenleaf puts the finest point on this philosophy when delineating how it is different from power-seeking leadership stating, "The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant - first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

In the Air Force where we emulate the value "Service before Self," we would do well to bring this service-leadership of our own family forward and utilize it to the benefit of our Air Force family members as well.