The motto of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is “Serve to Lead,” a phrase that reinforces the notion that service provides the legitimacy to lead, and thus the corollary that the vocational calling of the military officer is servant leadership. In my first lecture on ethics and leadership at Sandhurst, the initial slide served up to my fellow cadets was a painting depicting the Biblical scene in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Although a secular institution, the lesson was clear that in order for us to take on leadership, we must recognize that we are servants first and be willing to wash the feet of our own soldiers. Historically, military priorities were: “horses, men, officers”, which ultimately meant that at the end of the day, the horses would be tended to first, the enlisted soldiers next, and the officers last.
This tradition continues today, and in camp my responsibilities extended far beyond the management of a team of professionals; it meant that I would visit my soldiers in hospital, stand beside them in court, and visit with their families. As part of my daily routine in the field and on operations, I would get on my knees and inspect the feet of my soldiers, ensuring that any blisters, sores, or any other injuries were addressed. Despite being a combat trained infantry officer, my role resembled that of a shepherd who nurtured his flock. Equally, I understood that as the officer in charge, if I set the example of service and gave of myself to my team, they would return the same tenfold. If I served them, they would serve me when it was time for me to make difficult decisions and lead.
Having left the British Army a number of years ago, I find the lessons in leadership still resonate. Today, I work in a technology start up where my engineers and developers are my most critical resources. As in any business or organization, no matter how much automation and digital integration takes place, it is the people who ultimately make the company work. Alongside the typical job spec of any manager to provide direction and resolve issues for my team, I also recognize that I must be willing to serve. This notion of service is not a simplistic formula in which I bring in cupcakes for the group to win their affection – it is much more profound and challenging. It means that I must rally my team and inspire them as we pass through various business cycles; it means that I must take the heat when a mistake is made, drive out success during a deployment, and provide sensitivity and understanding when a colleague is going through personal difficulties. In return, I earn the loyalty and trust of my developers and when work is required late into the night or on weekends, my team commits as they know I have their best interests at heart.
Despite all the great books on leadership and management there are very few silver bullets. However, an attitude of service in which the most junior employees are placed ahead of the leader is a very simple approach with an exponential return on investment.