December 1, 2010  

The humble leader

Servant leadership can be a powerful asset in the military

In the fall of 2009, the National Defense University (NDU) participated in a quantitative research study to determine the level of servant leadership found in its graduating National War College and Industrial College of the Armed Forces classes of 2010.

The purpose of the study was to examine servant leadership attributes in senior military officers and determine the scope of servant leadership attributes and the demographics that differentiate them. The military is taxed from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — in addition to the expanded overseas contingency operations, increased suicide rates and a perceived exodus of the services’ best junior-grade officers are causes for concern. Servant leadership may help ease some of these issues in the military.

The crux of servant leadership is about improving your followers and putting their needs before your own. The concept of leadership has existed since the beginning of humankind, but it is relatively young as an academic research topic. The study of leadership encompasses a vast amount of data, focused mainly on military, business, and government organizations. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, noted leadership scholars, suggested that all individuals are potential leaders and frequently lead by example.

The research survey was also administered to alumni of NDU, other war college alumni and nonwar college officers at the lieutenant colonel/commander (O-5) or colonel/captain (O-6) rank. Participants included 131 male and 32 female current and former U.S. military officers. Eighty-three percent of the participants were current students or alumni of Defense Department senior service schools and were located predominately in the Washington, D.C., metro area.


The term servant leadership was coined in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, who later wrote “Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness.” Greenleaf stated that leaders serve followers and great leaders are servants first. Although he did not explicitly define servant leadership, he stated, “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant — first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”

Servant leadership is about leading with a servant heart. According to Kathleen Patterson, a noted expert in the field, servant leadership means “leading by truly loving your followers, walking with humility, doing the right things for people, being a visionary for your followers, trusting in others, empowering others, all while leading with a heart to serve.”

Greenleaf’s servant leadership concept has been touted by top organizational leaders such as Peter Senge, Warren Bennis, Margaret Wheatley, Stephen Covey and Peter Drucker. Many scholars have argued that the true beginning of servant leadership began with the teachings of Jesus Christ and therefore has strong historical ties to Christianity and the Bible. In addition, there have been other notable leaders such as Buddha, Gandhi, Moses and Mother Teresa who practiced servant leadership. Army Gens. George C. Marshall and Matthew Bunker Ridgway both used servant leadership practices well before Greenleaf introduced the term. For a military servant leader, the person would be of excellent character, skilled in influencing and inspiring others to contribute enthusiastically toward mission-oriented goals identified as part of a larger strategic vision.


According to research by Robert Kelley, who wrote the book “The Power of Followership,” almost 40 percent of leaders “have ‘ego’ problems — are threatened by talented subordinates, have a need to act superior, and do not share the limelight.”

“Ego Makes the Leader, Second Edition” is the teaser used by Harvard Business School on its website for a collection of materials on leadership. The authors featured in this collection investigated the impact of ego on leadership from three viewpoints: narcissism, humility and authenticity.

An old joke asks: What is the difference between Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and God? Answer: God doesn’t believe he’s Larry Ellison. Narcissistic leaders can have a huge impact on an organization. Unfortunately, that impact can be both positive and negative. It is important for the narcissistic leader to know his limitations, find a trusted sounding board and indoctrinate the organization with the vision — rewarding those who implement it. Narcissistic leaders with oversize egos can be very good for military operations — especially during times of transition. As gifted strategists and courageous risk takers, they can drive their organizations to greatness. However, they also have a dark side that can obliterate their careers and morale. Humble and resolved leaders, meanwhile, are most effective because they don’t flaunt their egos. To the contrary, they suppress them for the good of the organization. The total opposite side of the narcissistic leader is the humble leader. Humble leaders can be very successful in the military because they are focused on developing those they are leading while accomplishing the mission.

An authentic leader’s ego matters less than his genuineness. Inspirational leaders communicate their virtues and flaws to followers — revealing their true selves, ego and all. Why do some narcissistic leaders succeed? I am sure you have worked for at least one such leader in your career. Did that leader ever publicly humiliate you in front of your peers? Why was this behavior tolerated? Was it because the person was in charge of millions of dollars in materiel and held sway over your career advancement, or did the person just outrank you? Perhaps it was because that person had a certain charisma associated with his ego that followers found intriguing or intimidating.

Sociologists and political scientists have widely accepted the theory of charismatic leadership advanced by Max Weber in 1947 to account for the process by which radical change is brought about and legitimized in organizations. How are charisma and narcissism related? Charisma refers to a rare trait found in certain human personalities, usually including extreme charm and a “magnetic” quality of personality and/or appearance along with innate and powerfully sophisticated personal communicability and persuasiveness. Charismatic individuals generally project unusual confidence, calmness, assertiveness, authenticity and focus, along with superb communication skills. To the early Greeks, charisma was said to be a divine favor/gift; however, many believe it can be taught or learned despite the persistent inability to accurately define or even fully understand it.

Several academic studies have found that servant leadership characteristics of leaders positively influenced employees’ job satisfaction levels. A few scientific studies have pointed out that there is a relationship between trust and commitment in junior officers deciding to leave the military. Trust is closely tied with servant leadership practices and theory. One purpose of this study was to determine the level of servant leadership found across Defense Department senior officers.


The NDU study used the 62-question self-reported Servant Leadership Profile-Revised (SLP-R), a seven-point Likert-scale instrument using anchors of “strongly disagree” and “strongly agree.” The SLP-R has high reliability and validity in hundreds of studies. In the last five years, major corporations, hospitals, educational institutions, salespeople, international aid workers and the Australian Navy have used the SLP-R. The SLP-R has the following seven factors:

• Developing and empowering others.

• Power and pride (vulnerability and humility).

• Authentic leadership.

• Open or participatory leadership.

• Inspiring leadership.

• Visionary leadership.

• Courageous leadership.

The instrument highlights the deficiencies of prideful and authoritarian leaders and predicts the absence and presence of servant leadership. Power and pride can be negative factors if they are abused. Furthermore, scoring high on abuse of power and pride automatically disqualified an officer as a servant leader. The opponent-process model used in the design of the SLP-R posits that servant leadership is present to the extent that self-seeking attributes are absent.

Statistical analysis was completed comparing servant leadership scores across five key demographic variables: combat experience, occupational specialty or designator, gender, branch of service and age. For combat veteran and experience determination, participants were asked if they were a combat veteran and if they were awarded a combat action medal, badge or ribbon. The respondents had more than 117 different occupational specialties or designators; the most common were intelligence, infantry, logistics, physician, pilot, Special Forces and surface warfare. In addition, each participant indicated one of eight directorate codes: Manpower, Personnel and Administration; Intelligence; Operations; Logistics and Security; Plans and Policy; Communications; Training; and Finance, Resources and Assessments.


Seventy percent of the respondents were on active duty and 30 percent were retired. There were no differences in mean servant leadership scores among senior military officers across all five variables: combat experience, occupational specialty/designator, gender, branch of service and age. However, the mean servant leadership scores of an officer’s rank at the O-5 and O-6 levels differed significantly (p < .01). Officers at the O-6 level had statistically significant higher mean servant leadership scores than officers at the O-5 level. This research confirmed, however, that a majority of both O-5 and O-6 military officers have strong servant leadership traits.

Combat experience — Of those surveyed, 63 percent had combat experience and 35 percent had received a combat action medal, ribbon or badge. Senior officers with a combat action medal, ribbon or badge had a statistically higher mean score (p < .05) for the negative factors of abuse of power and pride. The specific cause of this difference cannot be determined in this study. On average, the combat action recipients scored too high on abuse of power and pride to be considered servant leaders. However, there was little difference between the overall servant leader percentage between those with and without combat action. Ostensibly, intense combat experience may have an influence in how an officer perceives individual power and pride. A certain amount of power and pride is not only healthy, but necessary. The precise amount of power and pride needed is situation-dependent, especially in combat.

Occupational specialty/designators — There were no differences found in SLP-R scores by occupational specialty/designators of senior military officers. Despite the wide range of respondent occupations, each senior military officer had similar leadership training throughout his career that was well structured and formalized at each career milestone. All of the officers had basic officer training, a 20-week captain/lieutenant (O-3) level course, and a 10-month major/lieutenant commander (O-4) course such as command and staff school designed to educate and train field-grade officers to be adaptive leaders. The officer leadership training before senior service school attendance is similar across the services and may account for the consistent servant leadership scores found across the different occupational specialties of senior military officers.

Gender — There was no statistically significant difference in the percentages of strong servant leadership traits among the positive factors by gender. However, researchers examining the negative factors of servant leadership, abuse of power and pride found that 44 percent of the women and 25 percent of the men scored below the threshold to be considered a servant leader (p < .05). While significant, the results of gender should be interpreted with caution given that the number of men respondents was four times as large as the number of women who participated in the study.

Branch of service — There were no differences found in the mean SLP-R scores based on the branch of service. However, further analysis showed a statistically significant (p < .05) difference in overall servant leadership mean scores between Navy and Marine Corps senior officers. The results should be interpreted with caution given that the Marine senior officers numbered 15 and only accounted for 9 percent of the sample population, compared with 39 and 23 percent, respectively, for the Navy senior officers. All of the services except for the Marine Corps had similar results across the negative factor of abuse of power and pride. There is a unique esprit de corps that distinguishes the Marines from other U.S. armed services that could help explain the data. Overall, when examining the total SLP-R scores, the military branch of service appeared to have no impact.


The Defense Department should consider using the results from this study to refine its officer leadership curriculum at all the service academies, officer candidate school, midcareer (O-3) training, command and staff (O-4) training and senior service schools (O-5/O-6). While 80 percent of the participants had strong servant leadership traits on the positive factors, 59 percent of the respondents failed to meet the threshold on the negative factor of abuse of power and pride to be considered a servant leader. Many hours are spent instructing officers on the essentials of leadership, but more work is needed to educate them on how to use effectively their position of leadership and to serve with humility. Officers with a high abuse of power and pride score can negatively influence subordinate officers’ retention rates and the overall command climate. A more extensive study focusing on servant leadership in the Marine Corps should be explored. It is recommended that a servant leadership block be taught at the aforementioned leadership schools specifically addressing power and pride of the military officer. While this study did not consider noncommissioned officers, it is also recommended that noncommissioned officer schools offer training on servant leadership and highlight the importance of humility. The noncommissioned officer cadre is the fulcrum of the military organization and a vital key in helping shaping the climate for the best efficacy.

A “super-sized” ego can have a small place in an organization for a short period of time during a transition or a combat contingency, but for longer-term positive results one should consider using servant leadership principles that are transformational in nature. According to Marine Corps Lt. Gen. John Kelly, the officer cadre of the military establishment is held to the highest standards of behavior and is made by the “humility, honesty, moral courage, trust and allegiance manifested by honorable men and women.” Humility is a key aspect of servant leadership that is often at odds within the U.S. military’s strong sense of pride. A passage from the Navy SEAL creed best describes the importance of military humility and self-sacrifice:

“My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own.”

In the war on terrorism, the stakes are high for America’s military. The role of the military officer is becoming increasingly more complex and challenging in a global battlefield. This study showed that, with respect to servant leadership, there is similar indoctrination and training for senior military officers with little variation among key demographic factors when it came to servant leadership traits. However, this study also highlighted across the services that there are abuses of power and pride in its senior officer cadre that should be more closely examined. Some may argue that senior military officers need a strong sense of pride and power on the battlefield to be successful. Pride and power are important in the leadership dynamic, but they shouldn’t be dominant factors in one’s leadership style. The benefits of servant leadership may benefit military operations and ease some of the pressures from a sustained operational tempo. AFJ

SHANAN FARMER is a Harvard National Security Fellow. He was previously at Naval Special Warfare Command.