As a former naval officer, I had the opportunity to complete three overseas deployments. In my final deployment, I was ultimately designated as an aircraft mission commander and was responsible in my mid-twenties for the missions assigned to a ten-person aircrew. This is far from unusual in the military as it is quite common to assume significant leadership responsibilities at a young age. While my period of military service pales in comparison to the sacrifices of those that have more recently served, it will always be one of the most cherished experiences of my life. Without question, my time in the military helped me appreciate what it truly means to serve. For me, answering the call to serve means we are willing to subordinate ourselves to a cause or purpose that is much bigger than us.
While I was in the Navy and subsequently now in civilian life (I have also worked in the private sector, for both state and federal government, and have now devoted myself to the teaching profession), I have seen many different examples of leadership – both good and bad. One that I especially admire – the servant leadership style – is not typically associated with the military even though, upon consideration, it has many parallels. Much has been written about the qualities and effectiveness of servant leadership. As an early thought leader on the subject, Robert Greenleaf, in the 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” noted that servant leaders possess greater self-awareness, elevated levels of empathy, exercise more responsible stewardship, and a display a higher sense of community than narcissistic, self-serving leaders. This, of course, should be no surprise. It takes considerably more courage and strength of character to be humble, thoughtful, and devoted to self-improvement than to be arrogant, shallow, and self-content. What may be surprising is that military service can be an excellent breeding ground for such leaders.
In the well-known business best seller from 2001, Good to Great, author Jim Collins offered persuasive research to show that servant leaders are also capable of achieving exceptional results. According to Collins, “level five” or servant-type leaders tend to have greater success precisely because they subordinate themselves to the task at hand. No matter how accomplished they become, they do not become complacent. They, remarkably, possess humility and always appreciate that there is room for improvement. They obtain greater satisfaction from solving problems and helping others rather than seeking the limelight or the glory. Collins’ research also compellingly concluded that organizations with servant-type leaders tend not only to be more results-oriented but also have more sustainable periods of exceptional performance. In a follow-up book, Great by Choice, Collins and Hansen also discovered what the military has known for a long time…high performing individuals and organizations have a fanatical sense of discipline. Those that have served in the military have regularly practiced what others preach…they have clearly learned to subordinate themselves to a larger purpose, be selfless and care deeply about the welfare of others, be strong team players, be results-oriented, and thoughtfully consider “lessons learned” from their past experiences and constantly strive for improvement.
Arguably, we need servant leaders now more than ever. We need to be reminded what it means to serve. Those that have served in the military know, as our youth like to say nowadays, how to keep it real. It’s never about status or speeches. It’s not about the ego of the leader but, rather, the mission and getting things done even when it may involve considerable sacrifices. While there are many reasons to be cynical given the enormity of the problems we face, I remain hopeful for our future because of the special men and women that have learned what it truly means to serve by being part of our armed forces over these very trying times. While those that made the ultimate sacrifice have been a painful, terrible loss for our country, I believe the years ahead will show that we have also been quite blessed to develop a promising corps of servant leaders that profoundly understand the meaning of service.
When many of our veterans make the decision to leave military service after returning home, we need to recognize what special gifts these special young men and women have to offer our country as future civilian servant leaders. They are a rare breed. The total veteran population is far less than ten percent of U.S. citizens. With well-deserved financial support, many are or will be seeking to further their education. Several Ivy League institutions have recently made the right decision to reestablish ROTC programs on their campuses. The opportunities and support, however, should not stop with education. The integrity, work ethic, drive, and leadership skills of those that have served in the military are in great demand in our society. While recent progress has been reported in hiring veterans, last year’s 12.1 percent unemployment rate (as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) for veterans that have served since 2001 remained unacceptably high. The vast potential of these new young veterans to use their highly developed skills for both corporate and public civilian service should be enthusiastically welcomed and supported. For the sake of our nation, we need to fully embrace and appreciate their enormous capacity to assume the qualities of highly effective servant leaders in civilian life. They deserve no less and our country needs them now more than ever to continue honing and developing their servant leadership abilities. They have more than earned our confidence and trust by “walking the talk” more than most of us ever will.
By Nick Lebredo, PhD CPA
Nick Lebredo, PhD CPA is currently an Associate Professor of Accounting at Saint Leo University near Tampa, Florida. Dr. Lebredo earned his doctorate from the University of Central Florida. He also graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, served in the U.S. Navy, and subsequently worked in the private sector, state, and federal government before entering academia.