Servant Leadership Starts with Followership

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jill Murphy
  • 92nd Maintenance Operations Squadron commander
When I was a young officer, leadership was defined as, "the art of influencing and directing people to accomplish the mission;" not a lot of points to tie your leadership style to. I realized I needed to read and research and develop a leadership style that worked for me - supporting my strengths and reducing my weaknesses. I read "Lincoln on Leadership," Sun Tzu's "Art of War" and even a few Air University books to get started. 

And I wasn't hesitant about asking senior noncommisioned officers for their perspective. It is all about improvement and how to take care of the Airmen entrusted to me. They taught me that before you can lead, you need to follow. 

That made sense to me. I, like many, had raised my right hand and swore to serve. In so doing, I have joined something bigger than myself. We are serving in a capacity that allows us to see and grow and become more than we could imagine. We are servants to and we are leaders within our chains of command. This article is how to reconcile the two roles for ourselves and to help others along the servant leadership path. 

As a follower, one of the best things you can do is protect your integrity. Your reputation is your word. It is how truthfully and accurately you follow your Air Force Instructions, technical orders and the lawful orders from your chain of command. You must never perform your duties in such a way that gives people a reason to doubt you are telling the truth. Our jobs directly affect quality of life, safety and security. It must be done right the first time and every time. If you are ever in doubt of what "right" is - ask! There is little room for avoidable and unnecessary risk in our Air Force. 

Mastering followership skills is usually followed closely by promotion, and with every new rank comes greater responsibility. With promotion comes a leadership role. When your single responsibility was to be a follower, I would bet the best thing your supervision or leadership could do was empower you to do your job. You knew you were trusted to make decisions, plan, follow-through and then inform your chain. Now that you are a leader, remember to empower your Airmen. That's the first rule (or construct) of servant leadership. 

Of course, there are several rules to being a good servant leader. We've covered two - followership and empowering your Airmen. The others are simple; in fact, we learned them in kindergarten. Treat everyone with respect and trust (until they have proven they don't deserve trust). Appreciate and encourage their diversity, their different skill sets and what each can bring to your organization. A good servant leader focuses on followers (again we are seeing empowerment) and keeps them on track with the unit mission. 

Think about the good and the not so good supervisors and leaders you've worked for so far. Again, I would bet that the ones you learned from acted with humility - made the unit accomplishments about the trials and tribulations and eventually hard won successes of the Airmen and owned the not so successful outcomes. 

As we grow through experiences and promotions, we need to adapt our skills to meet our increasing responsibilities. If you are just starting out on your Air Force career, whether you serve for four, six, 20 or more years - we all start at the beginning. Be a great follower. Remember your word and integrity are your reputation. Once they're gone, they're gone. As you promote and have Airmen that you supervise and lead, remember what it felt like when your supervision empowered you to complete your piece of our mission - the pride and ownership you felt. Pass it on, encourage others. Remember that everyone deserves dignity and respect. We come from diverse backgrounds and bring different skill sets to the mission and everyone will suffer failure before success. 

Dignity and respect will encourage their continued effort and the Air Force will eventually end up with a winner. Finally, remember to act with humility. Your Airmen complete the tasks that lead to mission success. Maybe they did it with your guidance and maybe they did it because of their unique perspective they brought. As we all know, we are only as good as our last kudos. Be a servant leader. Support and develop our Airmen and let them claim success and keep the failures as your own learning opportunity because tomorrow is another chance for kudos.