Servant leadership essential in today’s Air Force

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Brian A. Yates
  • 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron commander
One of our Air Force Core Values is "Service Before Self." As Airmen, we are all familiar with this simple but profound concept, and the implications it has. Long duty hours, deployments, separation from family, assignments you may not have requested - these sacrifices represent our willingness to put the needs of the Air Force ahead of our own comfort or benefit. While these events truly require all of us sacrifice at a personal level, there is another aspect of "Service Before Self" that becomes apparent as you continue to assume more responsibility in our Air Force.

When you move into a leadership role, such as section chief or flight commander, you immediately assume the responsibility for the needs of those in your unit or section, at least in terms of accomplishing your mission. To put it simply, you have to make sure your followers have what they require to accomplish their mission. This will include everything from proper workspace and equipment to family support programs and morale. To make sure you meet those needs, you, as the leader, have to take the time to think about what those needs are, and then know your people well enough to make sure they get it.

Understanding the difference between needs and wants is important. For a moment, consider a parent caring for a child. A child knows when he is hungry, but may try to meet this need with less than healthy choices; left to his own device, he might eat only cake, cookies, chips, etc. The parent knows that the child's need is not really just any old food, but nourishment for the long term, which means a healthy and balanced diet. The parent's responsibility is to make sure this need (healthy nourishment) is not neglected in favor of short-term "wants" (good-tasting junk food). In the Air Force, our needs include the technical skills, professional knowledge and education, and the world-class operational equipment we use to succeed, and a superior leader will determine exactly how the organization needs to train to hone its wartime skills to be ready.

So what does all this have to do with "Service Before Self?" As a leader, you will have to know and focus on the needs of your Airmen, civilians, and unit ahead of your own personal needs. For many new leaders, this might come as somewhat of a surprise, but the levels of sacrifice will continue to increase as you assume greater responsibilities. Much like the way a parent sacrifices for the good of the child, you will have to spend time not just meeting needs, but thinking about the "bigger picture" to determine what those needs truly are. You may even have to consciously assume the role of the "bad guy" for a time in order to prepare your folks, but in the long term the unit will rise to higher levels of performance and be successful.

Be prepared and willing to make this sacrifice. It may not be intuitive for those who are just beginning their journey into leadership, but the great leaders are the ones who "serve" those whom they lead. "Service Before Self" truly means giving all you can to your unit, your subordinates, and your Air Force. While it may be hard in the short term, at the end of the day our people and our country are worth it!