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Now more than ever, we need servant leaders

Col. Charles Barkhurst, Vice Commander, 88th Air Base Wing

Col. Charles Barkhurst, Vice Commander, 88th Air Base Wing

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Every organization requires good leadership to thrive and be successful.

Many military members express their reasons for joining the military as a way to serve their country. But how many people really mean that?

One of our teammates shared this outstanding quote from Bishop Dale Bronner that I feel sums it up: “If serving is below you, then leadership is beyond you.”

Service before self

In order to serve, you must first take on the role of being a servant. That means putting the needs of your team first. It’s important for you to acknowledge other people’s perspectives and supply them with the tools they need to be successful in meeting their personal and professional goals.

Servant leadership enhances the personal growth of other great leaders and improves the quality of the organization. As a servant leader, you serve your followers by focusing on personal development and making their well-being a priority. You don’t lose leadership qualities when becoming a servant leader.

Servant leaders give before they receive. If you take care of your Airmen, they will take care of the mission. You also help those who are doing poorly do better and help those doing well do even better.

And, you have to focus on your team’s needs, not their feelings. It’s imperative you get to know your Airmen; you can’t reach them if you don’t know who or where they are.

Develop leadership skills

To be an effective leader, you must develop leadership skills. At the core of leadership, you will always find influence.

You can measure your effectiveness by how much you have altered what you have been given. If you aren’t being effective and influential, you’re taking up space. You can’t change what you don’t care about.

Ask yourself these questions to determine how effective you are as a leader:

  • What are you producing?
  • What difference are you making in the lives and careers of your Airmen?

When you are a reckless leader, everybody else has to deal with the results of you not caring. Leadership is an action and not a position.

Through my Air Force journey, I have seen some “leaders” more focused on the position they held and what they could gain from the system. They were more worried about being relevant and getting promoted versus focusing on the people they were leading.

Make it about Airmen

One of the most fundamental lessons learned in leadership is it’s not about you. Your Airmen are not concerned about how strong a leader you are inwardly; they want to know and see where your leadership can take them.

Servant leadership is a lot like money — it only gains value when it is invested. When your Airmen sense that leadership decisions are made with your priorities, they will not trust you to lead. Once you have lost their trust, it’s almost impossible to motivate and inspire them.

This will limit the value of your leadership investment. While it’s true that leadership may afford you a great platform to excel, it’s important to recognize the people you lead built the platform and entrusted its care and well-being up to you. Forget that and failure is certain.

A seed will reproduce after its own kind. In order to produce good leaders, we must plant the seeds of good leadership.

Be committed to the growth of people. Give them the skills they need to be effective at their job. Your Airmen will never reach their full potential if they are misplaced and misguided. You don’t change the mindset of your Airmen by being right; you do it by showing that you care.

Your Airmen understand that promises made are meaningless, promises broken are costly and promises kept are invaluable. If you want to succeed as a leader, take care of your people. 

Keep perspective

One of my mentors would always say, “Leaders serve an organization rather than control it.”

Leaders, I challenge you to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility, count others more significant than yourselves. Look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Remember, you can’t walk on water if you don’t get out of the boat. When you get out of the boat, don’t allow surrounding circumstances to cause you to lose focus.

An unfocused leader has a narrow vision of what he or she should be doing in life. Their ideas will eventually drown with them. Change the negative culture by embracing the change and be a servant leader.

Your talent is never enough. Your focus directs your talent, perseverance sustains it and teamwork multiplies your talent. People may forget how fast you did your last job, but they will always remember how well you did it.

As John Maxwell, one of my favorite authors, says, “If you know how to do something, you will always have a job, but if you know why they are doing it, they will always work for you.”

So I ask our Air Force leaders, “Will the real servant leaders please stand up?”