Being a Leader and a Servant: A Brief Case Study of the Military


Being a libertarian student activist most likely means being a leader in some kind of way. You could lead a chapter organization on campus, or be an advocate for ideas on campus, online, or in your community, etc. However, being a libertarian and being a leader can create some confusion about what being a leader truly means. You may have heard the phrase ‘being a leader does not mean being a boss’, but what this truly means may elude you. When libertarians think of political leadership, we mostly envision narcissists who think they know how to control other’s lives (aka being a boss). This view of political leadership can sometimes lead us astray from identifying true leadership.

The Military as a Case Study
To elaborate on this point, I want to use the military as our case study. As a libertarian, the military may not be an obvious choice for what it means to be a great leader, as many libertarians are anti-war (though being anti-war does not mean being anti-military). Let us not blind ourselves to great leadership techniques simply because of political ideas.

To me, it seems obvious that the military is a great model of leadership because they lead people to do the craziest things imaginable. Civilian leaders try to motivate people to volunteer a few hours a day, get a business report submitted, etc. Military leaders motivate people to jump out of airplanes into combat zones of extreme danger, stay up for 30 hours straight working, and tolerate some of the most uncomfortable settings imaginable. This example makes it clear to me that the U.S. military probably knows a thing or two about leadership and motivation. The military is worth your time in study.

Who can be a good leader?
I want to show you two opposing quotes on how people become great leaders:

“I’m firmly convinced that leaders are not born; they’re educated, trained, and made, as in every other profession. To ensure a strong, ready Air Force, we must always remain dedicated to this process.”
-General Curtis E. LeMay, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force (1961-1965)

Compare that to:
“The first thing you people need to know about leadership is that most of you simply don’t have it in you.”
-Bobby Knight, University of Indiana Basketball Coach (1971-2000)

Clearly opposite ideas to one another. The second quote follows a “Great Man” line of thinking. This line of thinking asserts that great leaders are born to this Earth and possess some kind of unattainable skill, through some kind of genetics or supernatural process. This is a very anti-individual way of thinking. This idea makes it seem that individuals do not gain skills and education through their own work and merit. Instead, they appear to be “gifted” the quality of leadership. Essentially, leadership is not a skill or talent but is more comparable to something like eye color. This idea, at face value, is nonsense.

Instead, we must think of leadership as a skill just like any other. One is not born a great leader, just as one is not born a great mathematician, plumber, or athlete. One becomes a great leader. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Former President of the United States and First Supreme Allied Commander of Europe for NATO, agrees with this sentiment and says “the one quality that can be developed by studious reflection and practice is the leadership of men.”

This mindset is key to the military. The military structure doesn’t develop from the birth of great men, but instead through the development of rank and grade. Enlisted recruits, like airmen or private, can eventually rank up to noncommissioned officers, like staff sergeant and chief master sergeant. A second lieutenant can eventually become a general. However, none are immediately a general and none are immediately chief master sergeant. Leadership is learned and earned.

What is Leadership?
The U.S. Air Force Doctrine Document 1-1: Leadership and Force Development defines leadership as “the art and science of motivating, influencing, and directing Airmen to understand and accomplish the Air Force mission in joint warfare.”

Of course, this is highly specific for the Air Force. However, a more simplified and general definition for leadership can be crafted from the one above. The Civil Air Patrol, a youth organization and the auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force, broadens the definition as “the art and science of influencing and directing people to accomplish the assigned mission.” Perfect.

There are two terms here that are incredibly important for understanding leadership: “art” and “science”. Both are contradicting terms to each other to describe something as complex as leadership. Leadership is a science because great leadership is discovered through experimentation and observation, like a science. When you are a leader, constant trial-and-error is needed. However, it is also an art because there is no right way of accomplishing this. The 1948 Air Force Manual has a great description of this sentiment:

“The very fact that leadership is an art should discourage your becoming a mechanical leader. Leadership does not provide formulas, rules, or methods which will fit every situation. Leadership is an intangible quality which cannot be seen, felt or measured except through its results. Moreover, you cannot predict the results with mathematical accuracy. If you have skill as a leader, however, you can predict results within the limits of your objectives.”

The last definition of leadership I want to give comes from a very popular Dwight D. Eisenhower quote: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Two General Qualities of a Great Leader
Even though there is no formula for being a great leader, there are two general qualities that are needed for effective leadership: being a hard worker and having a servant mindset. To me, they are two sides of the same coin. In order to be a servant leader, one must be a hard worker. In order to be a hard worker, one will, in essence, be a servant.

Being a Hard Worker
I have already written about the importance of hard work in a previous post named “What Ray Kroc and Alexander Hamilton Can Teach Libertarians”, however, this point cannot be understated. Nothing takes the place of hard work. I think the persistence speech in The Founder says it all when it comes to this importance:

Persistence and dedication, A.K.A. hard work, are “all powerful.”

Hard work is important no matter what position you are in, but I would say it matters even more as a leader. In a team, the hardest worker should always be the leader. If a follower is working harder than a leader, the leader should reassess his work capabilities to that of the follower. This point is important for a few reasons:

  1. Being a leader, you most likely have more responsibility and oversight, thus creating more work.
  2. You must serve as an example to your subordinates. How could you ever ask a subordinate to do something you would not be willing to do yourself?
  3. It allows you to serve your subordinates, which brings us to the next important quality.

Servant Leadership
The conventional thought around leadership is flawed. We think of it like a pyramid. The top leader is the top boss who matters most. The underlings serve the upper leadership to accomplish the mission. Servant leadership thinks of this in reverse and views leadership structure more like a funnel than a pyramid.

A leader is always a servant to their followers. A leader should always do what they must to ensure the followers can complete the goal. In the end, this idea is less about the particular actions of a leader, but instead about the mindset of a leader. How a servant leader serves his followers will inherently look different from how a butler would serve an employer, but the leader will serve the follower, nonetheless.

Conventional leaders will “pull rank” constantly –the “you must do what I ask because I am your boss” mentality. This kind of mentality is destructive to the leader and is completely out of line with the reasoning of a servant leader. A follower does what a servant leader asks for the mission and for their own good, not for the leader’s good.

Tyrone Davis, a Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, nails the mentality on the head in the Air Force blog:
“In the Air Force, leadership is defined as the art or skill to influence people to accomplish the mission. To influence people, you must have authority. To gain authority, you must establish relationships. To establish relationships, you must serve and sacrifice for your people. When you serve and sacrifice for your people, you are demonstrating servant leadership.

At the end of the day, did you serve anyone? Did you take care of your people? Did you build any relationships? Did you hold people accountable for their actions? Were you honest, kind, committed and selfless in your actions?

Do this not to pat yourself on the back, but to keep yourself in check. To lead, you must serve, and when you serve, you are following the concept of servant leadership.”

Servant leadership is poetic in its power. It is hard to describe its power and effectiveness. However, like said before, leadership is an art, and an art is poetic in its power.

Leadership is a Constant Study
Just as the artist must always study and try new techniques, so must the leader. This post is not about providing you with the instruction manual for being a good leader, it is meant to give you the concepts and road map to discover it yourself. Leadership is a rigorous study and one that has confounded the minds of humans since the dawn of civilization.

If you wish to be an effective leader, never stop practicing and never stop searching. To help you with this search, I have a few suggestions for further reading: