When you’re a leader—no matter how long you’ve been in your role or how hard the journey was to get there—you are merely overhead unless you’re bringing out the best in your employees.1
Hello! First-time staff judge advocate (SJA) here, long-time fan of The Army Lawyer. I have recently discovered that SJAs have kind of hard jobs; yes, folks, you heard it here first. Of course, every Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps job seems to begin with the firehose-drinking analogy, but then it calms down after a few months of applying what you’ve learned, and you start to feel more comfortable in your new role. Having had several new assignments over the last nineteen years, I assumed SJA-ing would follow a similar pattern. But every day is a new adventure, tackling issues that I know some, little, or nothing about—to include issues where my skills are either rusty or nonexistent. This daily situation keeps me humble, but it also keeps me turning to my office of the staff judge advocate (OSJA) team: branch chiefs, young judge advocates (JAs) and paralegals with the time and talent to begin gaining subject-matter expertise in legal areas, and—most importantly—the OSJA leadership foundation. I frequently ask myself where I can fit in and lead effectively as the OSJA hums along, driven by the incredible professionals who do the hard work and keep our legal practice at an incredibly high level of success. Spoiler alert: it’s servant leadership.
The magic that happens when a leader places followers’ needs over their own desires (for personal success, recognition, etc.) is the most incredible lesson of leadership: the more you help others, the easier your job as a leader becomes. And the most exciting thing of all is this: servant leadership is for anyone! Second-most exciting thing: everyone can practice being a servant leader right now and watch as their teams transform into a cooperative, high-functioning community—all because they know that you, their leader, are there to help them as your primary purpose.
Though you might in fact already be practicing servant leadership, it is important to understand what servant leadership is, the effect this leadership approach can have on your team, and how to embrace and ultimately embody this highly-effective style of leadership. Experts in leadership studies agree there are myriad effective ways to lead,2 and individuals usually gravitate toward one or two approaches as their primary “leadership language.”3 In general, five leadership styles have emerged as the most popular way to define a leader’s approach to heading up teams and organizations: transformational leadership, participatory leadership, values-based leadership, situational leadership, and servant leadership.4 We may employ each, depending on the situation and role we currently serve; we may also dabble early on in our careers in each, learning which style suits us best and is most authentic to our personalities. In sum, leadership styles—though often presented as four, five, or even six distinguishable lanes we can organize ourselves into—do tend to vary subjectively, as applied to each individual leader.
Servant leadership is a simple concept. First coined in the 1970s, “servant leadership” was Robert K. Greenleaf’s way of describing a leader who puts serving others above all else.5 This leader “ensures that followers are growing in all areas—their profession, knowledge, autonomy, and even their health and physical development.”6 If this sounds familiar, it should: the Army’s leadership doctrine delves extensively into growth and investing in those we lead.7 Beyond simply developing subordinates in a rigid, formulaic way, servant leaders “help their people feel purposeful, motivated, and energized so they can bring their best selves to work.”8 This relationship between leader and follower is absolutely essential to the success of a team, office, and (ultimately) an organization, and Army leaders strive to make that connection with the officers and Soldiers they lead—all to ensure they accomplish their missions. Most persuasive here is the Army’s definition of a leader: “An Army leader influences others to accomplish missions.”9 Notably, it does not say, “An Army leader accomplishes the mission.” Influencing others is thus essential in getting our work done, and that leader definition emphasizes the “others” involved in leading. When leaders expressly serve others as their top priority, organizational success almost always follows.
No matter a leader’s personality or leadership abilities, adopting an attitude of servant leadership will reverberate among that leader’s followers. In the military, servant leadership seems to underpin each type of leadership style, due mainly to our role as “honorable servants of the Nation.”10 In our capacity as officers, warrant officers, civilians, and noncommissioned officers, we have “distinctive roles as honorable servants, Army experts, and stewards of the profession.”11 These three roles, in turn, relate to the Three Cs that The Judge Advocate General emphasizes in most of his discussions on leadership: character (honorable servant), competence (Army experts), and commitment (stewards of the profession).12 A servant leader’s humility and desire to help and improve subordinates is part of their character; a servant leader monitors and provides opportunities for subordinates to maximize and grow their competence; and a servant leader creates an environment where subordinates want to show up and give their best, inspiring commitment to the team (and, as a result, to the organization). The inevitable effect of a leader whose followers know wants to help those followers set and achieve their personal and professional goals is this: those followers trust their leader more, work harder toward shared goals/missions, and—best of all—feel like they are an essential part of a team.13 There is no better feeling than coming to work and knowing you are valued, your needs will be met, and you are surrounded by encouraging teammates.
So, how should you try to embrace servant leadership in your everyday interactions? The best way is to be helpful. That’s essentially it. Talk to people, find out what they need or want, figure out—together—a path or a series of smaller goals to get there, and then ask, “How can I help?” Young leaders or informal leaders can do this with their peers or co-workers, with other staff members, and with clients. Mid-level and senior leaders must get to know those they lead14 and ask what you can do to help them do their jobs better/run that marathon/spend more quality time with their families/anything the subordinate indicates is a goal or priority. “By nurturing participatory, empowering environments, and encouraging the talents of followers, the servant leader creates a more effective, motivated workforce and ultimately a more successful organization.”15
The most natural human action is to form a community, to cooperate with each other and to help each other—why should leading be any different? Leaders are truly in the best position to ask their team members, “How can I help?” and follow through with that help, all for the benefit of that individual. The race for personal success and acclaim subsides as the spirit of servant leadership features prominently in our actions; the individual leader does tend to fade into the background, in favor of featuring and highlighting those whom we serve. Senior leaders thus model servant leadership so the next generation of JAG Corps leaders achieve their goals, love their workplace (or at least enjoy it), and learn how to espouse servant leadership themselves as they grow and move into their own bigger leadership roles. We all joined this noble profession of arms to serve our country; as servant leaders, we simply view our country on a micro-scale, serving individuals in service to our country. TAL
1. Dan Cable, How Humble Leadership Really Works, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Apr. 23, 2018), https://hbr.org/2018/04/how-humble-leadership-really-works.
2. How to Be an Effective Leader: 8 Styles of Leadership, MasterClass (Jan. 19, 2022), https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-be-an-effective-leader#the-8-most-effective-leadership-styles.
3. See Gary Chapman, The Five Love Languages (1992).
4. Leslie Doyle, Leadership Styles: The Five Most Common & How to Find Your Own, Ne. Univ. (Mar. 7, 2019), https://www.northeastern.edu/graduate/blog/leadership-styles/ (“First coined by Robert K. Greenleaf, the term servant leader refers to a person who makes a conscious decision to aspire to lead in a way that places other people’s needs as their highest priority. The servant leader dedicates himself or herself to the growth and well-being of people in the community. Instead of focusing on accumulating power, this leader shares power and helps others perform as highly as possible.”).
5. Start Here: What Is Servant Leadership?, Robert K. Greenleaf Ctr. for Servant Leadership, https://www.greenleaf.org/what-is-servant-leadership/ (last visited Jan. 27, 2022). For more information on servant leadership, see generally Richard Sheridan, Chief Joy Officer: How Great Leaders Elevate Human Energy and Eliminate Fear ch. 7 (2018).
6. Brian Tait, Traditional Leadership Vs. Servant Leadership, Forbes (Mar. 11, 2020, 8:40 AM), https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/03/11/traditional-leadership-vs-servant-leadership/?sh=7395d827451e.
7. See generally U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession paras. 1-82 to 1-88 (31 July 2019) (C1, 25 Nov. 2019) [hereinafter ADP 6-22] (explaining the Leadership Requirements Model).
8. Cable, supra note 1.
9. ADP 6-22, supra note 7, para. 1-90.
10. Id. paras. 1-9, 1-56, 1-59 to 1-63.
11. Id. fig.1-2.
12. Major General Stuart W. Risch, Resilience Is a Shared Responsibility, Army Law., no. 6, 2019, at 2, 2 (“By being ready and resilient—rather than reactive—by striving to take care of ourselves and those around us, we are better positioned to be principled counselors, substantive masters, servant leaders, and effective stewards of our great Corps.”). See also ADP 6-22, supra note 7, fig.1-2.
13. I know I have a Pollyanna outlook reputation—it’s true! I do, however, realize that some (very few) subordinates might wish to take advantage of your servant leader approach to leading; or their interests are not in line with your team’s/organization’s best interests. (“No, Kyle, you cannot show up to work at 1000 and leave at 1400 every day.”) If the soft approach to rallying the team through your dedication to them personally does not initially resonate with a follower, of course reconsider, reflect, and mix up your leadership approach to reach and help the individual to grow. It has been my experience that in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps those types of subordinates are few and far between. My point is, adopting a servant leadership approach and using it to a smaller or larger extent in managing people most effectively builds the type of positive community where people want to work. Kyle will come around eventually.
14. Fred L. Borch III, Understanding People Is the Key to Successful Leadership, Army Law., no. 6, 2019, at 10.
15. Carol Smith, Servant Leadership: The Leadership Theory of Robert K. Greenleaf (Dec. 4, 2005) (course paper), https://www.boyden.com/media/just-what-the-doctor-ordered-15763495/Leadership%20%20Theory_Greenleaf%20Servant%20Leadership.pdf.