An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Leadership: Serving the right way

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Richardson
  • 1st SOW command chief
Over the past 20 years, I have had the pleasure and honor of attending various leadership and management training platforms, listening to and interacting with some of our most notable theorists and mentors of the present time. These individuals have spent countless hours looking at the leadership paradigm from every conceivable angle. 

And it seems like after every encounter, my viewpoint on leadership within the organization undergoes a slight transformation.

Yes, just when I think I have it down and am ready to press, another light goes on requiring a quick vector check of my current leadership principles and values. Well, roger that and rightfully so, because it ensures we are being responsive to our people's needs, especially with our current Air Force mission and focus on the Global War on Terrorism, transformation of our aging fleet of aircraft and in taking care of our Airmen and their families. Albert Einstein once said,

"The only constant in the universe is change," and includes choosing the appropriate leadership style that best serves the needs of those we lead. Being responsive to our people's needs sets them free to be responsible in getting the mission accomplished.

I often discuss leadership principles and values with Airmen, NCOs, senior NCOs and officers. The two questions that seem to surface on more than one occasion are: What are your thoughts on leadership and authority? Do you have a preferred method or rule of thumb for effective leadership?

My initial response to both questions is: "Do you have a few minutes or better yet, would you like to have lunch?" Yes, as a matter of fact, I do have a rule of thumb for effective leadership. It's called servant leadership. Let me take a few minutes and explain this simple concept to you.

Some might say leadership and authority are the same, that they go hand-in-hand, and that leadership warrants authority. Or better yet, leadership and authority must be obtained at the same time for effective management and force utilization. I beg to differ somewhat in that they are earned at separate levels called the hierarchy of serving.

You see, this hierarchy of serving is not new. It has been conceptualized and practiced for many years, and more recently brought back to life by the renowned leadership theorist, James Hunter. It basically says, "We must first serve before we can have the authority to lead."

The way I see it, leadership must first be earned in order for it to be effective, especially in today's Air Force. The hierarchy of serving begins when we align our intentions and actions and select the proper behavior. It's through this "proper behavior" that we choose to identify and meet the legitimate needs, not wants, of people we lead. Meeting the needs of others often requires us to serve and even make the ultimate sacrifice at times. 

Yes, serving and sacrificing for others allows us to build this authority or influence. And usually when we build this authority with people, we have earned the right to be called a leader. I have used this concept as a foundation together with other approaches to build and steer my leadership continuum for quite sometime. This perspective tends to square my actions and keep me on the right level during my everyday travels and dealings with others.

Servant leadership is about being tough and assertive in terms of goals, accountability, focus and perseverance. It's also about being empathetic in terms of listening with an honest intent to understand, setting aside preconceived notions, valuing people as well as results and acknowledging the emotional impact of work demands. The right blend creates a sense of trust and genuine caring, an environment charged with energy, confidence and motivation and a leader who is looked upon by followers as being genuine and authentic. Max Dupree once said, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant."

When it's all said and done, effective leadership comes down to identifying and meeting the needs of the people you serve.

The best way to remember servant leadership is like that of the shepherd "because the flock is not there for the sake of the shepherd; the shepherd is there for the sake of the flock."