Servant-leaders critical to unit success

Col. Vincent Valdespino
435th Communications Group commander

***image1***What is servant-leadership? Does leading from the rear have a place in today’s Air Force?
Sounds like a contradiction in terms, but in my opinion, it’s not a contradiction at all for you must know how to follow and serve before you can lead. In my mind, it’s simply a leadership lifestyle — on and off duty — of taking care of people and family.
How many of us have heard and in fact lived by the old saying, “Take care of your people, and the mission will take care of itself,” or “Mission first, people always?” These mission credos are, in fact, living examples of servant-leadership.
Robert Greenleaf, the man who first coined the phrase, described it in this way, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”
The servant first makes sure “that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.” The best test is to ask: Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?
I think our application within the Air Force takes Mr. Greenleaf’s ideas to the next level. We, as Air Force leaders, not only serve our people but also their families. Our profession as military members and our country — first and foremost.
I’d also say, without question, servant-leaders may or may not hold formal leadership positions. They exist and excel at every level — civilian, Airman, noncommissioned officer, company grade officer. These are the make-it-happen leaders within your organization that hold the positions of informal power and influence. For example, think of the young Airman with the dynamite smile, great haircut and uniform with that supercharged personality and outstanding work ethic who motivates his commander and the entire shop every day. It’s the Hidden Hero volunteer at the post office who handed you a package with a smile, a great attitude and an encouraging word that kept you smiling all day. It’s the first shirt who handled the family crisis or the broken down car or, better yet, the first-level supervisor who handled it so the shirt never had to get involved at all. It’s the young staff sergeants and lieutenants who work late and on weekends, putting together those decorations or below-the-zone nominations on their great troops to ensure they are recognized. It’s the chiefs, or better yet the young Airmen, who volunteer their off-duty time pulling weeds and keeping the grounds clean at the Kindergraves where our American children have been laid to rest in Germany.
Every day at Ramstein, I see great servant-leader commanders, shirts and chiefs leading from the front. But in our great Air Force, with its core values of “Integrity first, Service before self and Excellence in all we do,” our real success comes from servant-leadership from the middle and the rear: our young Airmen, NCOs, civilians and company grade officers without fancy duty titles who lead every day with a selfless desire to serve.