Real servant leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kyle Pelkey
  • 1st Special Operations Dental Squadron Commander
Another leadership commentary? Yes! Truthfully I am writing this commentary because it is my turn on a schedule, but the great news is, I am happy to serve in this way! For most of my career, I dreaded reading the seemingly infinite number of opinions on leadership from various Air Force leaders. Why write another commentary on this topic? I keep re-learning how incredibly important leadership is, and frankly, I’ve seen too many leaders get it wrong. As leaders, we need to constantly be looking for ways to improve our knowledge and abilities so we can inspire our people and be worthy of their trust. To quote Ben Parker (Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman’s uncle in the 2009 “Spiderman” movie), “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I just finished a great book titled “The Servant” by James C. Hunter. To me, this book explains true servant leadership better than any other. That is crucial because I believe that servant leadership is the only meaningful and lasting form of leadership. I have heard a lot of lip service about servant leadership, but I’ve only seen a few great examples of it in action throughout my career. The book is written in a story format that keeps it engaging. The concepts are skillfully blended into the story of a miserable and failing business leader, who superficially looked like a winner, but was failing at work and in his relationships at home. As his life is spiraling downward, he finally (begrudgingly) agrees to attend a retreat at a monastery on Lake Michigan. He only really agreed because he heard one of the monks was a former Fortune 500 executive and thought he might potentially get success tips from him.

One great concept in the book centers on the difference between power and authority. According to the author, power is, “the ability to force or coerce someone to do your will, even if they would choose not to, because of your position or your might.” Authority, on the other hand, is, “the skill of getting people to willingly do your will because of your personal influence.” I appreciate how the author notes that power is an ability where authority is a skill. For example, I can rely on my rank or my position as a squadron commander to make someone accomplish a task. However, if I am more effective, I can give an intent related to the mission and watch that same person enthusiastically accomplish that task in whatever way they choose because they want to get it done for the good of the mission. This is our great challenge as leaders – develop more authority with our people and reduce the need for using our power.

The leadership model presented in that book is unique. It is an inverted pyramid with will at the bottom and leadership at the top. I love the humor and simplicity, “Intentions – actions = squat…intentions + actions = will.” So, with the right intentions and actions, our will will lead us to love our people, which leads us to service and sacrifice for them. That enhances our authority with them and creates real leadership.

One critical chapter of the book focused on that concept of love. Before you dismiss this as emotional mush, the author clearly states that love is an action, not emotion. To love your people, according to Hunter, is to identify and meet their legitimate needs, not wants. The Greeks have multiple words for love which are more descriptive than our single word. He is focused on the Greek verb Agapao, which means unconditionally treating others with patience, kindness, humility, respect, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty and commitment, regardless of whether or not we feel like it or think they deserve it. If you are interested in this concept, another great book on this topic is “Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles for Effective Leaders” by Joel Manby.

All the great leaders I’ve admired over the years got this right. They had tremendous authority because their love for their people was obvious.

“I don’t necessarily have to like my players and associates, but as the leader I must love them. Love is loyalty, love is teamwork, love respects the dignity of the individual. This is the strength of any organization.” -Vince Lombardi.