From August 1996 – June 2000, I was assigned to the 22nd Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. I was a jet engine maintainer in the Specialist Flight, responsible for the upkeep and repair of the squadron’s F16s.
During my tenure in the 22nd, I learned many leadership lessons from two contrasting squadron commanders. Both were fighter pilots, both had been in the Air Force for quite some time, and both had earned the rank of lieutenant colonel. This was the end of their similarities, however.
The first commander led from his position and relied heavily on his title. We had the sense that he was in it for himself, and never really earned the respect of the squadron members. This was especially true for the enlisted corps. We respected the fact that he was an officer, and held the title of squadron commander, but he never inspired us to follow him for any other reason.
The second commander happened to have been our operations officer who promptly received command when the first commander was relieved of his duty. It was this second commander that I learned what sacrificial, servant leadership was all about.
From the first day our new boss made it his personal mission to get to know each of the squadron members by coming to us. He took off his flight suit and wore our uniform – the battle dress uniform (BDUs) – at least once a week. If you know anything about the egos of fighter pilots, you know this was huge!
In fact, in the evening right after the change of command ceremony, he walked up to us on the flightline wearing his BDUs and hacky sacked with us while we were waiting for the planes to land! It was these interactions that endeared him to us and made us want to give him our all.
I had later learned that when he took over as commander, he postponed his appointment to go the U.S. War College, which was a virtual guarantee for promotion to colonel. He knew we had been without good leadership from his predecessor, so he sacrificed an important moment in his career to serve the men and women in his unit by providing us true servant leadership.
During his tenure, I watched our unit go from disillusionment, disengagement and despair to an engaged, ready-to-fight, above-and-beyond team. Our leader inspired all of us to do more for each other and for him. He earned our respect by simply showing how much he cared for us!
Much later, in 2011, I found out that this servant leader had made the rank of major general, having far exceeded the colonel rank he sacrificed for us. It really didn’t surprise me because he was such an effective leader.
The best way to lead people today is to sacrificially serve them. Followers are perceptive when it comes to sizing up whom they choose to follow. In order to make deep connections with your followers, actively seek ways to serve them better.
Your title will only carry so much weight. Learn to lead beyond your position and into the hearts and minds of your followers. When you do, they will respond by giving you so much more than you can imagine!