Servant leadership is a powerful model that has guided how I lead for years.
I learned about it in the Army, observing others in action. I believe this world would be a better place if more people adopted this approach in their profession and in life.
I’ve been asked by the best-selling author Ken Blanchard to contribute to Servant Leadership in Action, a book of essays by 37 servant leadership experts and practitioners, which will be available in early 2018. What follows is a part of my contribution to that work.
My message is too long for one article so today is Part 1, with the second part to appear next Sunday.
I invite you to consider how my experiences in servant leadership might help you in your journey.
In the words of Gen. Creighton Abrams, former U.S. Army chief of staff: “Soldiers are not in the army. Soldiers are the army.”
Wow, what a powerful reminder of the fact that our Army is made up of people. Soldiers are people who need to be trained, equipped, cared for and well-led.
Servant leadership is a timeless concept originally coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in The Servant as Leader, an essay he first published in 1970. It fundamentally is about leaders casting a vision, then doing all they can to help their people achieve successful results.
The Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership (www.greenleaf.org) is a source of all his writings. From that site:
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
Sergeants are the leaders of the enlisted branch of the army. The origin of the term sergeant is from the Latin serviens, which means one who serves. So at the very core of the army, the focus is on sergeants as ones who serve.
For many folks not in the profession of arms, there is a common misperception that the army operates in a strict hierarchical structured environment. Non-army personnel believe command and control is exercised daily by those with the highest rank. There is some truth to that – especially during times of crisis when quick decisions need to be made.
However, for the majority of time when lives are not on the line, nothing could be further from the truth. In the army, true leadership is not about being a master – it’s about being a servant. It is about meeting the needs of people.
Lesson 1: Commit to lead by oaths, values, and creeds: New soldiers take an oath when enlisting in the army: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
In the mid 1990s, the Army embraced seven values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. These values define expectations of behavior and are well-defined, trained and reinforced routinely throughout military life.
We also have the Soldier’s Creed that reinforces the commitment to these values: “I am an American Soldier. I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people of the United States, and live the Army Values. I will always place the mission first.”
It concludes with, “I am a guardian of freedom and the American way of life. I am an American Soldier.”
The oath, values, and creed are not just words. They drive home the commitment to serve fellow soldiers and our nation, both greater causes than ourselves. They provide the foundation for the Army’s culture.
To volunteer to willingly give up one’s life for a greater cause is perhaps the most profound example of servant leadership.
Lesson 2: Learn to listen – squint with your ears: One of the most important leadership skills in any organization is the ability to listen. My mentor Maj. Gen. Perry Smith, U.S. Air Force retired, calls it “squinting with your ears.”
In 1978 I landed at Fort Bragg, N.C., on my initial assignment out of West Point. On day one I was met by the senior enlisted soldier of the battalion, Command Sgt. Maj. Tad Gaweda – a tough, battle-hardened veteran soldier and marvelous leader.
He said to me that day: “Every soldier has a sergeant. Don’t ever forget that.” The keen insights I learned from listening to sergeants paid huge dividends for the next 32 years, and continues today.
The need to listen is not limited to sergeants, of course. You cannot help anyone if you do not listen with the intent of understanding. This skill demands tireless practice. When I was able to set aside my ego, I learned tons from squinting with my ears.
Editor’s note: The conclusion to this column, Lessons 3 through 5, will appear in next Sunday’s edition of The Augusta Chronicle.
(Jeffrey W. Foley is a Certified Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered coach, leadership consultant and author. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: loralmountain.com.)