Are you a servant leader?

Lt.Col. Timothy Purcell, 50th  Operations Support Squadron commander. (Courtesy photo)

Lt.Col. Timothy Purcell, 50th Operations Support Squadron commander. (Courtesy photo)


As an avid fan of my beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats, and a college basketball fan in general, March Madness is, without a doubt, my favorite sporting event of the year.   In preparation for this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, I decided to read the latest book written by UK men’s basketball head coach, John Calipari, titled “Success Is The Only Option:  The Art of Coaching Extreme Talent.”  As a Hall of Fame and national championship winning head coach, Coach Cal has certainly achieved tremendous success over his 30 plus year career.  In his book, he shares his leadership philosophy and explains coaching principles that I think are applicable to not only sports, but to the Air Force as well.  One of his key principles I found particularly interesting is the idea of servant leadership, which led me to explore the concept further.


Servant leadership was first described in 1970 by an AT&T executive named Robert Greenleaf in an essay titled “The Servant as a Leader.” According to Greenleaf, “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people.  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.”    


A servant-leader measures their success by the success achieved by others around them.  If the leader cares first and foremost for the people within the organization and helps them achieve their goals, then the organization will thrive. One of my mentors describes it differently; he says if you want to know who you work for, turn your organization chart upside down. In other words, if you genuinely value the people you lead and make their priorities your priorities, they will perform to their highest ability and the organization will succeed.  As Airmen, we see evidence of servant-leadership all around us:  unit priorities that start with “people first,” mentorship programs, empowerment and delegation of authorities to the lowest level and leaders who ask “What can I do for you?” Servant-leadership is woven into the fabric of our Air Force and proper implementation is integral to mission success. 


However, servant leadership is not just limited to commanders. It is applicable to leadership at all levels, starting with front-line supervisors. How well do you know your subordinates and how aware are you of their personal and professional concerns?  Do you make their priorities your own?  Do you empower your subordinates to make decisions that are appropriate at their level?  Do you mentor your Airmen?  Are you committed to helping your Airmen reach their potential and achieve their goals?  Are you committed to developing your Airmen into leaders? These are all questions rooted in the philosophy of servant-leadership I believe are essential to mission success.  If we take care of our Airmen, they will perform at the highest level and execute the mission to the best of their ability.  Leaders at every level must foster a climate that promotes empowerment, mentorship and a “people first” attitude. If we do that successfully, we will develop leaders prepared to evolve the force, master space and drive innovation for years to come. Servant leadership has clearly helped Coach Cal achieve a high level of success on the hardwood, and I’m certain it will posture our wing to be more agile, responsive and lethal in providing global combat effects.