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Servant Leadership

Editor’s Note: The following article is based on remarks Colonel Vicalvi delivered before the National Prayer Breakfast at Fort Lee, Virginia, on 23 February.

In my almost 29 years on active duty, I have witnessed two types of leadership. I can sum up these two different types like this: those leaders who saw themselves as, and led as, servants of their Nation and their subordinates, and those who led expecting their subordinates to serve them and make them look good. Put another way, there were those who believed they were in leadership to take care of and support those they led and those who were there to be taken care of by those they led.

Someone once described it like this: The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them. The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm. The boss says, “I”; the leader says, “We.” The boss says, “Get here on time”; the leader beats them all to it. The boss fixes the blame for breakdowns; the leader fixes the breakdowns. The boss makes work a drudgery; the leader makes it interesting. The boss says, “Go”; the leader says, “Let’s go.”

Now think back. Have you seen both types of leadership? I honestly believe that both types produce results. Servant leadership produces results by encouraging and teaching. The other kind produces results by threatening, intimidating, and manipulating. I would propose that the leader who produces results by encouraging and teaching has longer lasting results because he builds future leaders who learn to believe in themselves and their abilities and strengths. The intimidator produces people who either become tyrants themselves or do things out of fear or punishment; when the fear is gone, they don’t produce anymore.

Back in August 1879, Major General John M. Schofield, in his address to the Corps of Cadets at West Point, said—

The discipline which makes the Soldiers of a free country reliable in battle is not to be gained by harsh or tyrannical treatment. On the contrary, such treatment is far more likely to destroy than to make an Army.

It is possible to impart instruction and to give commands in such a manner and such a tone of voice to inspire in the Soldier no feeling but an intense desire to obey, while the opposite manner and tone of voice cannot fail to excite strong resentment and a desire to disobey.

The one mode or the other of dealing with subordinates springs from a corresponding spirit in the breast of the Commander. He who feels the respect which is due to others cannot fail to inspire in them regard for himself, while he who feels, and hence manifests, disrespect toward others, especially his inferiors, cannot fail to inspire hatred against himself.

This is getting back to the basics of soldiering and leadership the right way.

The Army values—loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage—are great values. Some just memorize them, and some live them.

We might think that servant leadership is supposed to go only from high to low—from superior to subordinate—but this is not so. My first assignment was as a battalion chaplain in the 82d Airborne Division. I remember that one of the first leaders I turned to was a first lieutenant—a seasoned Vietnam veteran who had come up through the ranks. Now I was a captain, but he took me under his wing and never made me feel dumb. He patiently showed me how to rig a rucksack for jumping and told me what to expect on a tactical jump. He went out of his way to serve me.

The next person I remember learning from by observing him was a staff sergeant who taught me how to really care for Soldiers. The Soldiers in his platoon knew that he would die for them, and he knew that they would do the same for him. He did something that I seldom see anymore. He was single, and at that time he lived in the barracks. On Sunday morning, he cared enough about the spiritual needs of his Soldiers to lead them to chapel. I would see them coming like baby ducks following their mother. He led the way in their moral and spiritual development. Maybe this is one of those basics of soldiering and servant leadership that we need to dust off these days.

I remember those servant leaders even today, and they have inspired my leadership through all these years. I built their lives into mine, and I am better for having served with them.

Being a servant leader does not always mean that those who we lead like the things we do. At times, it means that we must discipline our Soldiers and that we must expect more out of them than just getting by. It means correcting them and at times having them do jobs they really don’t want to do. Sometimes it means kicking them in the pants.

I believe that the trademarks of a good servant leader are competence, courage, and compassion. Those trademarks don’t always come easily. Many times, they come from hard knocks in our own lives. I learned some of my lessons on what makes an effective servant leader by serving under some pretty ineffective tyrant leaders. I vowed never to be like them.

True servant leadership is not age or gender specific. At the Green Ramp fire at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, in March 1994, many ran for their lives from this inferno, and I don’t fault them. The first Soldiers that I saw when I came around the corner into the flame and smoke were a young female first lieutenant aviator and a young specialist Signal Corps Soldier. With disregard for their own well-being, they gave all they had. They could have died, but they put themselves on the line, and they each received the Soldier’s Medal for their servant heroism. They were true servant leaders.

I pray that, no matter whether we wear stripes, bars, leaves, eagles, or stars, we will continually get back to the basics of true soldiering—of true servant leadership. May God bless you all, and may God bless America. Pro Deo et Patria—For God and Country!

Chaplain (Colonel) Paul L. Vicalvi is the Commandant of the Army Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He holds a B.A. degree from Houghton College, a master of divinity degree from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, a master of theology degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a master’s degree in national security studies from the National War College.