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Servant Leadership

Ten Military Figures Who Got it Right

By Master Sgt. Aaron L. Griffing

XVIII Airborne Corps & Fort Bragg NCO Academy

April 12, 2019

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Graphic by NCO Journal

In today’s fight, maintaining an advantageous position over the adversary is as challenging as it has ever been. The United States military’s proprietorship of technologically advanced equipment is no longer enough to tip the scales in America’s favor. The difference between triumph and defeat may come down to something intangible—leadership. A particular style of leadership in which the leader serves others and places their needs first in a humble approach to meeting collective goals is known as servant leadership. Though a man named Robert Greenleaf is credited with coining the phrase servant leadership in his 1970 essay, The Servant as a Leader, the philosophy has been proven successful by world leaders for over 2,000 years (Greenleaf, 2008).

According to The Journal of Business Ethics, “The concept of servant leadership echoes the messages of Mother Theresa, Moses, Harriet Tubman, Lao-tzu, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Confucius, and many other religious, historic, and current leaders (Keith, 2008). Many scholars model Jesus Christ's teachings to his disciples as the ultimate example of servant leadership” (Parris and Peachey, 2013, p. 379).

Servant leaders have and continue to thrive in the armed forces. In the military, servant leaders set aside their egos and seek to place the needs of others first to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. After Greenleaf’s essay, Larry Spears later expanded upon the philosophy and identified ten characteristics of a servant leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Spears, 2010). Compiled below is a list of each characteristic paired with a military leader who has demonstrated that characteristic through their actions.

Gen. Colin Powell and Listening

Chief of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, communicates via satellite with the Pentagon during Operation Desert Shield. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jeff Wright)

In Oren Harari’s book, The Leadership Secret of Colin Powell, he notes “Powell is very deliberate and methodical as he sets out to spark change in his organization. Even as he lays out his new agenda and starts the change ball rolling, he spends an enormous amount of time listening, learning, and involving people in the change process” (Harari, 2003, p. 27). Gen. Powell understood that listening was essential to communication and decision-making. Powell became an agile and adaptive leader—prepared to tackle ill-structured problems—because of his willingness to listen to members of his team. On listening, Spears speaks to how servant leaders exercise effective listening to identify the will of the group. “He or she listens receptively to what is being said and unsaid” (Spears, 2010, p. 27).

Lt. Gen. Honoré and Empathy

In 2005, Lt. Gen. Honoré emerged from the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a national hero. He provided the calming presence the Gulf Coast region desperately needed. In Second Line Rescue, Honoré is described as the “compassionate father and grandfather who comforted a young mother carrying twins, taking the infants from her arms into the care of his assistants” (Ancelet, Guadet, & Lindahl, 2013, p. 62). Honoré viewed the crisis from the young mother’s perspective as his compassionate act demonstrated his empathetic nature. Spears says, “The servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others” (Spears, 2010, p. 27). Honoré and his demonstrated empathy helped reassure hundreds of thousands of people during a national crisis.

Col. Robert Gould Shaw and Awareness

Col. Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, were immortalized in the 1989 film Glory, based upon historical facts. Shaw commanded the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the original African American regiments of the Civil War and arguably the most famous (“;Assault of Battery Wagner,”; 2009). Shaw initially took command of the 54th to appease his mother—an abolitionist (“Civil War Biography,”; n.d.). As time passed, Shaw’s experiences with his unit derived a greater appreciation for his Soldiers. During one incident, motivated by inequality, Shaw led an 18-month boycott after learning that his black Soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts. Shaw’s awareness and actions—like the boycott—earned Shaw his Soldiers’ loyalty. Tragically, Shaw was killed while leading an attack of Fort Wagner. However, the 54th Massachusetts fought courageously during the battle and affirmed Shaw’s belief that the color of a Soldier’s skin did not determine the quality of the Soldier. Spears said awareness “helps one in understanding issues involving ethics, power, and values” (Spears, 2010, p. 27). Shaw’s awareness inspired the 54th Massachusetts Infantry and solidified his place in history as a servant leader.

Lt. Gen. Nadja West and Persuasion

Lt. Gen. West is the current Army surgeon general as well as the first African-American female lieutenant general (Siang, 2019). Her philosophy on leadership is best summed up with her quote, “As a leader, you’re really a servant, so you serve those who you lead” (Ferdinando, 2016, para. 3). In a 2017 New York Times interview, West spoke of how she discovered the art of persuasion early in her medical career. Despite guiding her patients towards their best interest, she found some patients were unwilling to follow her instructions—whether because they were reluctant or afraid. West learned persuasion was a more successful approach in getting reluctant patients to adhere to her professional advice (Bryant, 2017). Spears elaborated on persuasion, “The servant leader seeks to convince others, rather than coerce compliance” (Spears, 2010, p. 28). Being committed to the health of her patients, West demonstrated servant leadership with her persuasion.

Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport and Conceptualization

The NCO 2020 Strategy developed an approach to transition from the Noncommissioned Officer Education System (NCOES) to the Noncommissioned Officer Professional Development System (NCOPDS). Command Sgt. Maj. Davenport, former command sergeant major of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and his team demonstrated conceptualization when generating the NCO 2020 Strategy. The team visualized the bigger picture and created a plan to improve the development of the NCO Corps (“NCO 2020 Strategy,” 2015). Of conceptualization, Spears said, “Servant leaders seek to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams” (Spears, 2010, p. 28). Conceptualization allows a leader to answer a problem with a permanent solution rather than a short-term fix.

Molly Pitcher and Stewardship

Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth

The story of Molly Pitcher’s heroism during the Revolutionary War is legendary. As the story goes, during the Battle of Monmouth, Pitcher was providing water to Gen. George Washington’s Minutemen. Her husband, a combatant under Washington’s command, was manning a cannon until incapacitated during the fight. Without hesitation, Pitcher replaced her husband on the cannon and fired upon the enemy for the remainder of the battle (Nix, 2016). Her heroic act symbolized stewardship as neither the cannon nor the mission was hers. Despite this, she cared for the gun and the mission as if both her own. Spears defined stewardship as “holding something in trust for another” (Spears, 2010, p. 29). Whether by serving water to a thirsty colonial militia, or exercising stewardship of a cannon, Pitcher was a servant leader.

Maj. Richard Winters and Foresight

Maj. Richard Winters is best known as the Easy Company commander in the television series Band of Brothers. Winters was committed to his craft as an infantry officer and dedicated much personal time to intense studying (McKay, 2018). His ability to lead, fight, and win during the war is a result of his excellent foresight. Winters was able to leverage his experience and knowledge to foresee problems and generate solutions. Through foresight, Winters understood the necessity in defeating the Nazi-German 105 cannons to support U.S. troops landing at Utah Beach on D-Day. Winters was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions as he led a small group of paratroopers to destroy three of the enemy guns. Spears identified foresight as “a characteristic that enables the servant leader to understand the lessons from the past, the realities of the present, and the likely consequence of a decision for the future” (Spears, 2010, p. 28).

Command Sgt. Maj. David L. Clark and Commitment to the Growth of People

The Fort Bragg Noncommissioned Officer (NCO) Academy maintains an exceptional legacy of training NCOs set by Command Sgt. Maj. David L. Clark, the academy’s first enlisted commandant. Consequently, the Fort Bragg NCO Academy’s auditorium is named after Clark. To enter the auditorium, aspiring NCOs pass a plaque with Clark’s likeness engraved and a summary highlighting his commitment to the NCO Corps. The plaque and auditorium named in his honor are in recognition of his commitment to the growth of people. Former commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence, Maj. Gen. James B. Linder, credits Clark with mentoring both enlisted Soldiers and officers, saying, “It’;s leaders like Sgt. Maj. Clark who build our officer corps” (Brooks, 2015). Clark epitomized Spears’ interpretation of Commitment to the Growth of People, “the servant leader recognizes the tremendous responsibility to do everything in his or her power to nurture the personal and professional growth of employees and colleagues” (Spears, 2010, p. 29).

Raymond Plank and Building Community

Raymond Plank served as a combat pilot during World War II and completed more than 40 successful missions in a B-24 bomber. He even witnessed the atomic-bomb attack on Nagasaki. However, he makes this list for his accomplishments following his military service as an entrepreneur. Following the war, Plank became the founder of Apache Corporation and helped establish Apache Corp as one of the world’s leaders in the oil and gas industry. The company now employs over 3,600 employees across the globe. Plank’s accomplishments reached beyond the boundaries of corporate success as he made significant contributions within the community. Plank’s commitment to building community is captured by an Apache Corp statement stating Plank “founded several high-impact charities that continue to make a difference today” (Pulsinelli, 2018, para. 6). Following Mr. Plank’s death, Apache’s current CEO, John Christmann, described the servant leadership qualities of the company’s founder when he said, “we remember Raymond as a visionary leader and a strong, passionate and caring man,” (Pulsinelli, 2018, para. 7). Plank’s actions represent Spears’ pillar of building community to accomplish a common goal, and “can be created among those who work in businesses and other institutions” (Spears, 2010, p. 29).

Brig. Gen. George Caldwell and Healing

Proving both fiction, and non-fiction, offer their readers benefits, a fictitious character appears on this list. Anton Myrer’s novel, Once an Eagle, proves a well-written war story can serve an audience a vivid lesson on leadership. In the novel, Gen. George Caldwell demonstrates Spears’ concept of healing in an early chapter of the book as he visits a World War II field hospital crowded with injured Soldiers. Despite not being a doctor, the general’s humble act of visiting the wounded lifted their spirits and fostered healing. Spears points out that servant leaders recognize that they “have an opportunity to help make whole those with whom they come in contact” (Spears, 2010, p. 27). Although a fictional character, Caldwell’s genuine concern for others was the medicine the injured Soldiers required, and is a blueprint for readers on how to show compassion and empathy for others.


As proven by their stories, these military figures left an indelible mark on history. Each leader demonstrated Spears’ characteristics of servant leadership: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community. Servant leadership is not magic—it is a humble approach that places the needs of others first. Military leaders who employ servant leadership enhance their organizations with greater morale. This enables the unit to accomplish their missions with greater urgency and increases their ability to fight and win America’s wars.


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Master Sgt. Aaron Griffing is currently a Master Leader Course facilitator at the XVIII Airborne Corps & Fort Bragg NCO Academy. He previously served as a first sergeant in 1st Battalion, 30th Field Artillery, 428th Field Artillery Brigade, Fort Sill, Oklahoma and 3rd Battalion, 319th Field Artillery, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Griffing has deployed four times to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn, and has deployed once to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies at Regent University.

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