Sunday, March 14, 2010

Leaders Who Serve

Over three decades ago our second son was born. I still remember that day and the emotions that came with it, but I also remember a very important leadership lesson I learned that day.

Serving in the Air Force and home between overseas tours I was fortunate to be there for his birth. I hadn’t been able to be there for our first so this was a special moment for me. But there were problems. We were scheduled to have the baby at a small community hospital on the northern outskirts of Phoenix. Just a few days before the birth the doctors became very concerned about some abnormalities and advised us that this may be a difficult one. They weren’t as worried about the birth as they were about what would happen immediately after, concerned that the baby would need a full blood transfusion. This small hospital did not have the capability to do the procedure, and due to legal and insurance issues we could not have the birth at the only hospital in the area capable of the procedure.

We were concerned of course. I was struggling not to show the depth of my concern to my wife, but I was worried. We were alone and this was about the biggest trial we had faced as a couple. She was depending on me and I couldn’t let her down.

At the hospital the labor took a long time. At some point I felt I needed to get outside and get some fresh air. It didn’t look like anything was going to happen soon and I felt I needed a break, so I stepped outside. To my surprise, there sat a U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter on the pad with the crew standing around. The flight crew along with a medic and nurse, just standing around. I thought they must have just brought an accident victim in and were waiting to return to base, so I went over to talk with them. Most of these were guys I knew.

That’s when I learned the lesson in leadership. They hadn’t brought in an accident victim. They were on a “training mission,” one arranged by our squadron C.O. They were there, with the flight plan already filed, waiting to take my new baby to a downtown hospital capable of doing the blood procedure if needed. I was stunned. I barely even knew our C.O. and had no idea he even knew we were expecting, much less that there was a problem. I still don’t know how he found out. But I know what he did, I know what it meant to me, and I know what it taught me.

One of a leader’s most important jobs is to remove obstacles that hinder the success of others. Too often we see leadership positions as a zenith of power and influence. Some see the leader’s job as that of being “super boss,” pressuring and pushing, mandating and demanding. Some focus on goals and trends, analyzing information to ferret out the levers that when pulled will steer the organization on a new course. Still others will tell you that a leader’s job is to envision and motivate. I suppose all of those are true and needed at certain points, but there are also leadership characteristics that I don’t think change with the circumstances. For one, leaders care. They care about their people, they care about their community, and they care about what affects them.

Leaders who understand this know the value of serving others from the leadership role. They understand how that commitment engenders commitment in return, how that loyalty reaps loyalty, how the humility of serving someone else can elevate the server as it honors the one being served.

Leaders with a servant attitude succeed, don’t think they don’t. Look around and you will see them. Leaders who genuinely care and are passionate, leaders to whom people gather because of shared values, goals and partnership. These leaders are not weak. To the contrary they have the strength of their values to undergird them when hard choices have to be made. They have something else as well – they have the trust of those they lead because the trust has been earned through shared experiences.

In the end we were fortunate that our child did not need the procedure. Two days later I took home a healthy and beaming Mom and baby. But we could have needed it. And if we had the resources were there, put in place and arranged by a leader who cared.

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