On October 15, 2013, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor, our nation’s highest military award for valor, to retired Army Captain William Swenson for his actions during the battle of Ganjal Gar in Afghanistan on September 9, 2009. According to the citation for the award, Captain Swenson repeatedly braved enemy fire to save his fellow soldiers, rescue Afghan troops and retrieve the bodies of dead Americans who had been ambushed earlier at the start of the battle.
During the award presentation, President Obama quoted a scripture about servant leadership (watch the video for the exact wording). I couldn’t help but think what a fitting description for Captain William Swenson and how his call to serve motivated his actions that September day as he went above and beyond the call of duty for his men.
You do not have to be a soldier leading other soldiers through thick and thin to be able to exemplify the traits of a servant leader. Servant leadership is the ability to move past your own self-interest and serve the needs of others by providing them with an opportunity to develop and grow and also providing them with opportunities to gain both materially and emotionally.
It’s fair to say that the ideal of servant leadership isn’t easy, but it isn’t impossible either, especially in today’s work environments. Robert Greenleaf was the first to describe servant leadership in his book titled: Servant Leadership. The four basic precepts in Greenleaf’s model are:
- Put service before self-interest. Servant Leadership is a conscious choice to use your talents in the service of others to help not only individuals but also your organization grow and develop.
- Listen first to affirm others. Hearing what your employees are saying is not the same as listening to them. Understand what the needs and goals of your group are and work toward achieving them. Remember, servant leaders don’t impose their will on others.
- Inspire trust by being trustworthy. In my post Building Trust in Your Organization, I mention the key tenets to building trust: Ability, Benevolence and Integrity. However, the latter two are the most essential characteristics in servant leaders. Benevolence is the desire to do good for others and Integrity is the ability to follow values that your employees find acceptable. Read the post for more insight on those key trust builders.
- Nourish others and help them become whole. Servant leaders care about their employee’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. Having the ability to be close to your subordinates is key to understanding their needs and sharing in their challenges as they continue to work towards their goals.
Being a servant leader isn’t easy, and tends to be a lifelong journey through one’s own professional development, but you don’t have to make radical changes to be a servant leader. Servant leadership can be something as simple as giving your employees a simple word of encouragement as they work on their personal and professional development or helping your employees understand where they fit in the bigger picture of your organization.
Courage in Leadership
Serving others and doing what’s right doesn’t come easy for some, especially when many corporate cultures value “fitting in” and “going with the flow.” Leaders must be able to find courage within themselves to remain morally true in their service to others. Courage is defined as the ability to step forward through fear. As Senator John McCain states: “Fear is the opportunity for courage, not proof of cowardice.”
So what exactly does courage in leadership mean? For starters, courage in leadership means accepting responsibility. Leaders don’t wait for things to happen, they make things happen. Moreover, good leaders will always take responsibility for their failures and mistakes without trying to shift the blame onto others.
More often than not, courage in leadership means non-conformity or going against the grain, breaking traditions, reducing boundaries, and being a catalyst for change.
Courage in leadership means pushing beyond your comfort zones and working on developing a versatility that will meet the needs of your employees.
Courage in leadership means not being afraid to ask for you need and saying what you think. A primary function of a leader is to influence others, to be able to do so means that at times you will need to speak out or speak up regardless of how your message will be received if it needs to be said.
Lastly, courage in leadership means fighting for you believe in. Leaders often take risks, but a good leader will do so for a higher moral purpose. Find the courage to work toward achieving a change if it’s morally right and enhances your purpose of serving others.
Identify Your Own Values
The Army holds its values of Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity and Personal Courage in high regard and teaches their soldiers to live their lives by those values. Captain William Swenson was the exemplification of those Army Values, which guided his actions on September 9, 2009 for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He showed loyalty and selfless service to his fellow soldiers and military partners and he continued to brave personal danger to move them out of harm’s way. Captain Swenson displayed personal courage by going above and beyond the call of duty to do what he thought was morally right by going in harms way to retrieve the bodies of dead Americans during the battle.
Acknowledging a call to serve others is the first step in your development as a leader, but leadership is a lifelong learning experience, make sure you are taking the right steps in being able to develop your own leadership skills (i.e. read a leadership, book, or blog, take a course at your local community college, etc.). As a leader, you too will be faced with the need to identify your own value system and act, as well as help others to act, in conjunction with those values. Your actions and decisions today will ultimately determine the leader you will be tomorrow.