The military produces much more than death and destruction – it produces leaders – and it does so through the principles of servant leadership. Unlike many civilian industries, the “military industry” has a very defined career lifecycle. For all intents and purposes, this lifecycle only lasts about 6.7 years for enlisted service members and 10.9 years for officers, according to the Pew Research Center (2011). For the sake of ease, we will use the life cycle of an enlisted Air Force Airman for this discussion, since there are 251,310 total active, Air Force enlisted Airmen, who compromise about 79 percent of the total force, (Air Force Magazine, 2016).
Airmen enter basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. They will then move onto their technical school to learn their jobs. After graduation, they will move onto their first duty assignment, where they will receive on the job training. It is at this point the young Airmen enters into what can be considered the “servant leader lifecycle.” The goal of military leaders is to be as replaceable as possible. It’s woven into the fabric of their culture. If and when they are killed in battle, their subordinates must be trained and ready to pick up the flag and carry it to victory. Since military careers are so short (on average), the leadership development cycle must be short as well. So, over the years, the Air Force has become very adept at taking these young Airmen and turning them into leaders very quickly.
Today, Airmen are promoted to staff sergeant in about 4.39 years, on average (Bailey, 2017). This all means the Air Force will keep people as front line supervisors for about 2 years before they leave the service. The result is a leadership machine capable of indoctrinating civilians and in 6.7 years outputting leaders – and doing so in the tens of thousands per year. This is not even touching on how many of these young men and women go straight from military service to post-high school education opportunities, which enhances their human capital even further.
The magic happens insides of the Air Force’s leadership machine though. General David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, discussed in his first letter to Airmen, how Airmen of all types are “absolutely committed to servant leadership” (Goldfein, 2016). He made servant leadership a regular point in his talks, when I worked on the Joint Staff and he was our director of staff. Servant leadership is key to airpower and the key to servant leadership is for leaders to commit to putting their followers first, and treating them fairly (Northouse, 2016, p. 239). As Northouse (2016), citing Liden, Wayne, Zhao, and Henderson discussed, servant leadership requires the right antecedent conditions, and leader behaviors to result in the right outcomes (p. 231).
Building and maintaining the right culture is a key antecedent condition, which is why Goldfein (2016) discusses the importance of re-invigorating the squadron, the foundational and cultural building block of the Air Force. He acknowledges the culture has weakened and has set the goal of improving it. Leader attributes and follower receptivity are also key antecedent conditions as well, which is why studying them is built into professional development courses required throughout an Airman’s career.
Servant leader behaviors are equally as important as the antecedent conditions. Northouse (2016) references seven, specifically: Conceptualization, emotional healing, putting followers first, helping followers grow and succeed, behaving ethically, empowering, and creating value for the community (p. 232). Although each of these behaviors deserves a blog all to itself, I will touch on four that are very applicable to the Air Force. Helping followers grow and succeed is a key component for Air Force leaders because as mentioned previously, it is their mission. Airmen are not in competition with one another, they are a team, and they are only as strong as the weakest link. For young Airmen to grow into competent sergeants, they must be trusted and empowered with responsibilities designed to stretch their limits to help them build the self-confidence required to lead and train others. This is the cyclical nature of military service. Ethical behavior is at the core of military service. Air Force Airmen are held to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which places restrictions on them above and beyond normal state and federal laws. Finally, community service is built into the foundation of Airmenship. Creating value for their communities does not stop at simply protecting freedoms, but includes leaving the base and volunteering.
The outcome of servant leadership does not only include improving the Airmen’s performance to positively impact organizational performance – but to improve society as a whole (Northouse, 2016, p. 236, 237). To succeed, the process needs to be self-replicating because the turnover of Airmen is so quick. The Air Force simply does not have the time to be patient with leadership development – and servant leadership exemplifies the environment and behaviors required to accomplishing this mission.
Bailey, K. (2017, August 24). Air Force releases staff sergeant 17E5 promotion cycle statistics. Air Force’s Personnel Center. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://goo.gl/Xjq7rQ
Goldfein, D. L. (2016, August 9). CSAF Letter to Airmen. United States Air Force. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://goo.gl/GeGMuT
Chapter 6: A Profile of the Modern Military. (2011, October 5). Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://goo.gl/byTYCZ
Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: theory and practice (7th ed.). Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2017). PSYCH 485 Lesson 11: Servant leadership. Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://goo.gl/cyBhDK
USAF Total Force. (2016, May). Air Force Magazine, 9(5). Retrieved November 5, 2017 from https://goo.gl/hTmRmj