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Service - the foundation of leadership and success

by Col. Robert A. Williamson
6th Medical Operations Squadron commander

All members of the United States Air Force are called to live by common core values that include "Service before self."

It is no accident that being a member of the Air Force is referred to as military service. The duty of the Airman is centered in service to the nation, to the Air Force and to the unit. Leaders in the Air Force, especially, must embody this type of service to the larger whole. But though this attribute is critical to successful leadership, service that is pointed in another direction entirely is equally, if not more, important.

A commonly held conception of successful leaders is people who have risen to the top of their game, who command large organizations, whose smallest whims are realized by subordinates who jump to carry them out, who are served by those under them. The leaders have earned privilege and status, and it becomes the duty of those they lead to serve them.

But in this model of leadership, the leader becomes the center, and all efforts are turned to pleasing and serving the leader and not to accomplishing the goals of the larger organization, to achieving the mission. Serving the leader sabotages the organization, and successful leadership turns out to be only an illusion.

How then should a leader serve? Truly successful leaders serve not only the greater organization but, just as importantly, serve those whom they lead. By taking on this role of the servant leader, they maximize the ability of their organizations to fulfill their missions effectively and efficiently.

Leaders who serve their people seek to provide what they need in order to do their jobs better. They serve by providing the resources that are needed - the right tools, the appropriate support staff and the necessary raw materials. They serve by ensuring that their people have the knowledge that is needed by providing opportunities to learn, by mentoring and encouraging them. And they give them the chance to take risks and thereby to grow and mature in their skills and in their understanding. Such leaders understand that through serving those who are led, the entire organization is able to move forward to success after success.

Leaders who serve their people in this way can expect certain results. They can expect better performance from the organization because their workers have the necessary resources and have developed the skills and knowledge needed to use them to optimal effect. Just as important, they can expect good attitudes and a desire to do well because the workers feel valued and feel that they, too, are important to the organization and to its success. And they can expect loyalty, for when the followers know that their leaders truly care about them, they come to care about the leaders and will seek to serve them, just as they have been served.

Leadership through service is not a skill that can easily be taken up when one is given a formal position of leadership. It is best learned and developed through the practice of service throughout one's career.

All Airmen at all levels have daily opportunities to serve others. They have opportunity to serve the nation and the unit through the conscientious performance of their duty. But they also have innumerable opportunities to serve those beside whom they work and those who work for them.

It is in these relationships that they will learn the practice of servant leadership. They will find that, in serving the needs and interests of these co-workers and subordinates, they will earn the loyalty and confidence of those individuals. That loyalty and confidence form the foundation of truly effective leadership. When others perceive genuine concern for their needs, as demonstrated through the practice of selfless service, they will follow.

As one assumes progressively higher levels of leadership, from first-line supervision to command of a large unit, the importance of service to the members of the organization never diminishes. Those who are successful and effective leaders are marked by their concern for the needs of the individual members and their commitment to serving those needs. They are the leaders for whom the unit's members will gladly go the extra mile and whose example of service becomes the norm for the organization. They are the leaders who will be remembered by their subordinates as examples of great leadership and who will inspire the leaders of the future.

If you want to learn to lead, then, learn first to serve. Learn to serve not only those with authority over you, but also those over whom you have authority. In serving these, your subordinates, you will enable them to perform their duty to the utmost of their ability, and you will inspire them to reach for ever greater levels of service.

They, too, will learn to serve those who work for them, and your example of success through service will be magnified, over and over again, to the betterment of the individual, the unit, the Air Force and our great nation.

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