Resilience and Servant Leadership
By Master Sgt. Angela Guigni
Chief Religious Affairs NCO for U.S. Army South, Fort Sam Houston, TX
October 16, 2023
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To instill a culture of resilience, U.S. Army leaders must epitomize servant leadership in all they do. That much, according to the research, is clear. Servant leaders lead by example. They walk the walk. This demonstration of leadership empowers Soldiers to build their resilience and, ultimately, bounce back from adversity with relative quickness and ease.
Servant leaders must also address people and processes antithetical to the newly developed resiliency culture. To illustrate true servant leadership in action and what it means to be a leader in the U.S. Army, we turn to the story of Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez—Vietnam War veteran, Medal of Honor recipient and true American hero.
When he addressed a crowd of young Soldiers and officers in 1991, Benavidez answered a question many combat veterans are usually asked.
Given the opportunity, would he do anything differently?
“There will never be enough paper to print the money, nor enough gold in Fort Knox for me, to keep me from doing what I did. I am proud to be an American,” he said (Benavidez, 2019, 8:30). His firm conviction, commitment to service and capacity to bounce back from adversity define what it means to be a resilient servant leader. But what kept him moving forward? “Faith, determination and a positive attitude carry people further than ability” (1991).
Resilience in Action
Army leaders today must carefully consider their Soldiers’ innate capacity to face the hardships of war, allowing them to keep moving forward. During his first deployment to Vietnam, Benavidez stepped on a mine, leaving him paralyzed for months in a hospital and on the verge of early medical retirement. However, following a remarkable recovery, he was returned to duty.
A short time later, during a rescue mission, Benavidez saved eight fellow Soldiers despite being wounded 37 times. He wasn’t expected to survive. At one point, doctors thought he died. Miraculously, he survived and once again recovered. For his actions during that engagement, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. (Benavidez, 2019).
This would have been the pin in the hat of any military career, a nice place to retire for most people. But Benavidez was not like most people. He continued his service even after leaving active duty, sharing his stories to encourage others. What accounts for all that resilience? What made Benavidez keep going? And how can today’s Soldiers and servant leaders use his story and way of thinking to better the Army?
Leaders Influence Resilience
Military operations require Soldiers to sacrifice. Deployments to combat zones abroad are high-risk, high-stress endeavors filled with danger. Add the ambiguity of rapidly changing operational environments, quick turnaround times and family separations, and Soldiers’ overall performance and well-being are bound to be tested. Leaders can directly facilitate Soldiers’ learning healthy coping mechanisms to put the stress of military operations into perspective.
According to Bertone’s study (2006), resilient individuals have a high sense of life and work commitment, greater self-control and are more open to change and challenges. Additionally, resilient individuals tend to interpret adversity as a normal part of life and consider life’s hardships part of an exciting, worthwhile, and purposeful life (Bartone, 2006).
Leaders are uniquely positioned to influence the entire organizational culture and how Soldiers interpret experiences. For example, leaders who have difficult discussions on the collective stressors Soldiers face directly, help Soldiers better understand the challenges of their experiences and alleviate stressors by listening and providing insight.
Formal environments like resiliency training sessions or after-action reviews (AAR), also create development opportunities. All these increase Soldiers’ ability to deal with stress and enhance performance under adverse circumstances (Bartone, 2006).
Leadership is about influencing people to accomplish goals. Servant leadership is about leading and serving, a concept very much intrinsic to military leadership doctrine. Army leaders are in the business of developing and taking care of Soldiers, including in areas such as mental agility and self-awareness (Department of the Army, 2019).
According to Blanchard and Broadwell (2018), “once people are clear on where they are going, the leader’s role shifts to a service mindset for the task of implementation.” (p. 9)
Great leaders also serve the people they lead. Usually, people who do not grasp this concept have distorted leadership images that put their interests at the forefront and they become selfish leaders.
On the other hand, servant leaders tend to put themselves aside and focus on serving a greater purpose. For instance, Andrew Young, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr., said, “it was not about me” (Blanchard, Broadwell, 2018, p. 152) when referring to his unassuming, selfless service as a quiet professional who generated necessary changes that still impact society today. Servant leaders humbly aspire to develop healthy individuals who, in part, tend to copy desired leadership behaviors and become servant leaders themselves.
Servant leaders embody ten distinctive traits that can improve individual resilience and help build resilient organizational cultures. They are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018). Servant leaders understand leadership’s meaning and recognize that leading is about taking care of people by providing opportunities for them to grow and thrive.
Traits of a Servant Leader
Servant leaders often refer to their passion and commitment to serve others as “an altruistic calling to serve others and encourage their subordinate’s growth and development” (Fatima et al., 2021, p. 5). They practice active communication and are committed to building relationships with others.
First, servant leaders listen to others to understand their words, emotions and body language (Xie, 2020). For instance, General Colin Powell was well-known for his listening skills. He intentionally took the time to listen to his team members (Griffin, 2019). This leadership style led to successful mission accomplishment and his subordinates’ personal improvement.
Successful servant leaders empathize with others and extend compassion toward their situation (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018). They establish a connection based on understating and improving people personally and professionally. The capacity to empathize and willingness to listen form a secure environment that promotes the healing process from traumatic situations (Fatima et al., 2021).
According to the Department of the Army (2019), leaders should know their strengths and weaknesses to earn their subordinates’ trust and adequately assess and prepare to meet conditions. Servant leaders are in tune with their surroundings and the needs of others. In addition, servant leaders can anticipate consequences based on experience and are often aware of likely outcomes or possess insightful foresight. They know themselves; they are humble about their abilities and power (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018).
People’s commitment to the growth makes servant leaders treat Soldiers as family. Retired Col. Robin Blanchard was the first female brigade commander in the Washington National Guard; she recognized that leaders must earn their followers.
Servant leaders earn their followers by developing them, communicating their values and equipping them for success (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018). However, servant leadership does not mean being subservient. Some people think being a servant leader means allowing subordinates to walk all over them, but that could not be more wrong. Servant leaders are strong leaders skilled in modeling what right looks like, therefore intrinsically motivating those around them (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018).
Finally, servant leaders build communities. Human beings survive and thrive through life’s hurdles better when conquered together in a community through mutual trust and understanding.
Army leaders have the unique ability to affect an organization’s environment directly. They can create an environment that allows people to make mistakes, face adversity and grow from it. Therefore, an environment conducive to developing resilience is where people can ask for help without fear of mistreatment (Blanchard & Broadwell, 2018).
Nevertheless, resilient communities do not just happen. Great servant leaders create them by creating positive environments where people can thrive and become future servant leaders.
According to the Army Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness doctrine (2019), resilience is the mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral ability to face and cope with adversity, adapt to change, recover, and learn and grow from setbacks (p. 10).
Resilience is vital to mission accomplishment. To help Soldiers build resilience, the Army created and implemented the Soldier and Family Fitness Program (CSF2) to increase resilience skills within the community. CSF2 employs performance enhancement training focusing on the five dimensions of strength: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and family.
The program also develops leaders to be their units’ Master Resilience Trainers (MRT). MRTs serve as the commander’s subject matter experts who coach the formation on resilience and performance enhancement skills. Resilient individuals use their cognitive skills to control their emotions and behavior, thus promoting their health and optimizing performance (Department of the Army, 2019).
The MRT program develops six areas: self-regulation, optimism, mental agility, strength of character and connection (Army Ready and Resilient, 2022). The goal is to train Soldiers on performance enhancement skills designed by the University of Pennsylvania that cover areas such as avoiding thinking traps, putting things into perspective, problem-solving, identifying character strengths, detecting icebergs, and others (Reivich et al., 2011).
Resilience skills encompass a comprehensive approach to an individual’s makeup and help Soldiers deal with the reality of working in high-risk environments, adjusting to the ever-changing operational environment, and bouncing back when faced with adversity (Department of the Army, 2014).
However, leaders need to get to know their people to help tap into those skills and put them into practice with concrete experiences. Servant leadership promotes the commitment to developing individuals through a genuine and empathetic approach to applying MRT skills in day-to-day experiences.
According to Reivich and Shatte (2003), resilience allows people to persevere and adapt when things go awry (p. 1). Resilience gave Benavidez the ability to derive meaning from extremely challenging situations and survive.
Resilient leaders inspire others to work through hardships. When Soldiers face adversity, their mental ability to quickly process and interpret the situation and make critical decisions helps them overcome and bounce back.
The military learned how resilience helps force recovery after years of continuous conflict. Although the Army adopted MRT, it takes servant leadership to truly create a resilient culture. This article analyzed how Army leaders today can apply servant leadership traits to help Soldiers develop the ability to recover from hardships and adversities.
Resilience is essential because it allows people to interpret and process troubles as part of a meaningful life. Servant leadership aims to develop subordinates and create a resilient culture. CSF2 is the Army’s approach to increasing resilience skills within the community.
The Army needs servant leaders to use these skills to create resilient communities. Servant leaders provide leadership to subordinates by creating positive environments where Soldiers can thrive and emulate servant leadership qualities.
Benavidez’s commitment to serving ultimately saved him and his comrades during the Vietnam War. Even after military service, his dedication to strengthening his community exemplifies a resilient servant leader with a legacy all leaders should follow.n
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Master Sgt. Angela Guigni is the chief religious affairs NCO for U.S. Army South, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. She has served in a variety of leadership assignments over the last 17 years to include master religious affairs NCO for U.S. Army Special Operations Command and senior platoon sergeant and instructor at the Institute for Religious Leadership. Guigni is a Class 72 Sergeants Major Course graduate, “Trust and Inspire.” She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Leadership and Workforce Development from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, as well as a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Science in Management from Excelsior University.
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