Service Before Self: A Leadership Model

  • Published
  • By Maj. Breck Woodard
  • 92nd Logistics Readiness Squadron commander
We are all familiar with the Air Force's second core value of Service Before Self and experience it daily, especially with its deep implications to long duty hours, extended deployments, separation from family, and maybe less than desirable assignment locations. Every day, these sacrifices are part of our lives and represent a willingness to put the needs of the Air Force ahead of our own comfort, benefit, or personal well-being. It's these same sacrifices to another person that makes a great Wingman. But what about a leader? 

The selfless leader is willing to risk his or her own fate in order to do what is right. In fact, putting the needs of the organization above your own and sacrificing for the Airmen you've been given to lead are both characteristics of servant leadership. The Chinese sage Lao Tzu best described it as "The greatest leader forgets himself and attends to the development of others". Once a leader assumes the responsibility for the needs of those in his/her unit or section, to include everything from proper training and work environment to family support programs and morale, the mission is accomplished and the Air Force in the long term grows by personally developing the next Chief Master Sergeant or General Officer. 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. Much like a parent sacrifices for the benefit of a child, you will have to spend time not just meeting needs, but thinking about the "bigger picture" to determine what those needs truly are and how they can achieve them. You may even have to consciously assume the role of the "bad guy" for a time in order to prepare your Airmen, but in the long term the unit and individuals will rise to higher levels of performance and be successful. The final piece is to praise them for their journey and help them utilize their new potential for the next level of success. Max Dupree said it best, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant." 

These principles 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. Servant leaders produce results by encouraging, teaching, and empathizing with their Airmen, which creates longer lasting results by building future leaders empowered to succeed. The benefits reside in the unit and subordinates, not the leader. Once you get the "I" out of the way, your focus turns to the right location. 

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.