Servant Leadership What?

The other day I have the privilege of attending the local chamber of commerce’s Military Appreciation Luncheon with a couple hundred soldiers from nearby Fort Hood as well as a large number of military veterans in our city. It was great to sit down and talk with some of the officers and NCOs who are leading soldiers in our Army. other day I had the privilege of attending the Temple, Texas Chamber of Commerce’s Military Appreciation Luncheon with a couple hundred soldiers from nearby Fort Hood as well as a large number of military veterans in our city. It was great to sit down and talk with some of the officers and NCOs who are leading soldiers in our Army.

As I talked with these fine people, I thought back to my own experience in the Army and some of the great leaders I had the honor to serve with. The interesting thing about the best leaders is that they weren’t pushy nor did they throw their weight around. They didn’t have to. Their very demeanor told us they were in charge. They also made sure to take care of those in their leadership and make sure those under their charge had everything they needed to get the job done. As one wise leader I learned a great deal from, Command Sergeant Major Lonnie Bagwell put it, “If you want to be an NCO, you have to take care of soldiers first and foremost. If you’re not doing that, it’s time to find something else to do.”

One of my favorite movies is “Heartbreak Ridge.” The character played by Clint Eastwood in that movie, Gunnery Sergeant Highway, is a servant leader. I can hear many of you saying “Huh?” to that one. Let me go over some ideas of what servant leadership is all about and let’s see if you don’t agree with me …

Servant leaders go with integrity – always.
First thing going, a crafty supply sergeant tries to tempt Gunny Highway into helping him steal supplies and make some bucks on the side. Instead of bending into temptation and taking the bribe of a “contraband stogie,” Highway tells the sergeant to shove off.

Later, Highway starts to have run ins with his commander, the major, who wants to lord his authority over everyone and make himself look good. The good gunny sees right through the major and tells him straight up that his mission is to make sure as many Marines as possible come back alive. The major will have none of this and orders Highway to act in a way which was against Highway’s better judgement based on his combat experience.

Great leaders are truthful and lead lives of integrity, doing the right thing even when nobody is looking and even when it’s not popular. One cannot lead effectively if they lie to their charges or participate in selfish gain. Nothing destroys a team faster than lack of integrity at the top.

Servant leaders have authority, but don’t lord it over those in their charge.
Gunny Highway comes to a unit he loves, the Recon Platoon of a Marine Rifle unit. His authority is immediately challenged to the point where one of his subordinates threatens to beat him up if he doesn’t leave. Highway immediately shows the group who’s boss by tossing the big guy around. After the melee, the young marine offers to wait to be arrested. While it would have been within his right to have the young man thrown into the brig, he instead sends him out to join the rest of the group.

While you should never need resort to violence to show your authority, sometimes it will be challenged and you need to demonstrate you are in charge. To succeed over the long haul, though, you need to instill a sense of team in your charges. If you have to constantly lord your position over them, you’re not doing it right. As Dave Ramsey teaches in his EntreLeadership class, “You can’t be ‘The Boss’ and win.'” Teamwork doesn’t work well like that.

During my time in the Army, I often worked on teams where everyone was on a first name basis with each other regardless of rank. We didn’t need stripes or bars to show who was in charge because we knew who the leader was. He or she didn’t have to pull rank because they demonstrated why they were in the place of authority. While rank is important, competent authority is quite something else.

Servant leaders take care of their people.
One of the young marines in Gunny Highway’s platoon is married and has a few children. Because he didn’t make enough money to take care of his family (which is a crying shame and a topic for another time) he has to take a second job. Because of this job, he sometimes misses his work time on base and his friends have to cover for him. When Highway finds out about it, he’s upset at first. Who can blame him, though? One of his people is getting paid and not showing up for work. Once he finds out the circumstances, he doesn’t write the kid off. Instead, he offers to help the young man and his family get assistance and even hands over some cash out of his own pocket so the young man can catch up on bills and get groceries.

How often do you hear about companies kicking their employees to the curb when tragedy strikes? Too often, I’ll bet. Thankfully I’ve been fortunate to have been employed by companies which take care of their people. If the people on your team can’t trust you to have their backs when something bad happens to them they won’t give you their best effort. You have to be willing to walk the extra mile with them if you expect them to walk the extra mile with you.

Servant leaders make sure their people have everything they need to succeed.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the Marine Base is put on alert. Gunny Highway tries to get his men night vision goggles. It makes sense because the mission of his platoon is reconnaissance. Reconnaissance at night is much easier and a lot more effective with night vision devices. He is thwarted from doing this by the major who doesn’t really want Highway to succeed in his mission.

Another thing I heard quite often from the great leaders I worked with is that one needs to set their teams up for success. All too often, people are assigned duties and then not given the tools to do them properly and sometimes are not given the delegated authority to make decisions needed to succeed. I’m not referring to “toys” here, but tools.

Set your people up for success – they’ll make you look good.

Servant leaders don’t hide behind bureaucracy.
In the scene I mentioned in #3, the major Gunny Highway kept tangling with was rather terse about the whole night vision goggle thing. His reference to “T.O. & E.” was about the “Table of Organization and Equipment” which governs how military units are configured and equipped. Because night vision devices weren’t on the list, Highway wasn’t going to get them without submitting formal requisition forms.

I’m quite familiar with T.O & E. as I dealt with it in the Army, too. While the list was good for providing basic, minimum equipment, sometimes other items were needed to get the job done faster and/or better. There are always exceptions to the rules, and this one was no exception. If the major wanted, he could have gotten an exception and changed the T.O. & E rather easily.

There’s a lot more going on between this character and the Gunny Highway character but suffice to say the commander’s lack of leadership ability is pretty evident. It’s common for poor leaders to hide behind bureaucracy in an attempt to deflect attention away from their lack of ability.

A good leader will also learn how to go around and cut through red tape when needed. I’m not referring to dishonesty or “getting favors” but rather learning how to get things done when needed.

Servant leaders shield their people from “stuff” rolling downhill. They also handle problems themselves whenever possible.
While at the rifle range, the marine known as “Profile” messes up big time. He accidentally lets off a burst of rounds from his weapon in the general direction of the major and the sergeant major. Instead of marching on the way home like the rest of the platoon, he’s forced to run circles around them while carrying his weapon over his head. While those who’ve never been in the military may find this punishment extreme, it’s actually quite appropriate considering unlawful (and unsafe) discharge of a weapon is a court martial offense. What is really telling is what happens when “Profile” falls down. Instead of leaving him there and condemning him to the wrath of the major, Gunny Highway bends over and whispers something in his ear. What he said motivated “Profile” to keep on going even though he was exhausted.

Good leaders understand the mission and their people. If something is rolling downhill which could be an unnecessary distraction, they will head it off and deal with it so it doesn’t become a problem for the team. While “Profile” deserved what he got, that was between him and Gunny Highway. There was no need to take matters any higher to correct the situation.

Servant leaders use their initiative to get things done with excellence and teach those they lead to do likewise.
At the end of the movie, Gunny Highway and his platoon advance to the top of a hill and take out an enemy position, despite the fact they were (wrongly) ordered not to by the major. After all was said and done, there sat Highway smoking a cigar and reveling in the success of the team. The major shows up in his jeep, and proceeds to rain down threats and  insults on Highway, his lieutenant and the men. Finally, in “deus ex machina” fashion, the colonel shows up and straightens things out. He congratulates Gunny Highway and his men and castigates the major using some rather choice words. In the end, we see who is the real leader and who is the “poser.” Gunny taught his troops to “improvise, adapt and overcome,” and this they did.

In his book Linchpin, Seth Godin refers to “the factory” and how it’s easy to fit in where little is expected of you and you don’t have to do much to get by. The problem with this is, if little is expected of you, then you’re easily replaced. One way to show you are more valuable to your leader is by showing some initiative. Instead of doing things to the minimum standard, so a little extra. Don’t just answer the customer’s question, offer to assist further and keep asking until they tell you they don’t need anything else. Use some initiative and make things better for everyone.

Servant leaders mold their teams into a cohesive, working unit.
Gunny Highway goes through a lot of toil and sweat in order to make his platoon a cohesive unit. Because they weren’t a team at all when he first took over the reigns, he really had his work cut out for him. But, through all the steps he took, eventually the Marines in his charge “got it” and starting working together. By the time they got to the “pit fight” they were working together, cooperating with Highway and with each other. Success was inevitable.

Team building exercises and off site team meetings are tools to help mold people into cohesive units. There’s nothing, though, like the process of working together towards a common goal and learning to work together for excellence that really builds a team. Tackling a difficult task together goes a long way into making a group into a real team.

Servant leaders reproduce themselves.
Gunny Highway and his sergeant major saw some potential in “Stitch” Jones. When Stitch and the Sergeant Major rescued Highway from the drunk tank, he was initiated into the leadership group by learning the history of Gunny Highway and how he earned his Medal of Honor. He was inspired to learn more. By the end of the movie, he realized he wanted to stay a Marine and follow in the footsteps of those who inspired him.

This is probably the most important part of being a great leader. All too often, good leaders come along and do the things I listed above, but when it’s time for them to move on, retire or just leave there’s no one who can take their place. Soon, the team falls apart and what was once an effective group working together becomes a gaggle of individuals again. Great leaders find those who have potential and bring them along to take their place. It’s one way a great leader can leave a legacy.

Now, it’s not to say that servant leaders, great leaders are perfect.
Gunny Highway had his problems. He tended to drink and fight too much and he was, from his ex’s point of view, a lousy husband. But, he did finally learn to understand this about himself and was trying to learn to be better in those areas. One of the humorous aspects of the move is the “tough guy” character reading ladies’ magazines trying to connect with his feminine side. I was taught in leadership school that leaders “… know themselves and seek self improvement.” Gunny Highway certainly did this.

What about you? Have you seen the movie? Is there something you think I overlooked? Please feel free to drop your ideas in the comments.

*** Update ***
A couple days after I posted this article, Matt Curtin of SocialSmack tweeted this link to a post on Sam Decker’s blog called ” The Paradoxes of Servant Leadership.” I found it appropriate to share here.

Creative Commons License photo credit: The U.S. Army

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