Exceptional Release Presents:

The US Military and Servant Leadership:
An Examination of Whether the Two Are Truly Compatible

By: Lt Col Michael L. Boswell & Capt Neal K. Gupta


Over the past few years, the world of leadership in academia has seemed to be somewhat stagnant. Specifically, in the military, the focus of a leader is more confined to a continuum that only displays two extremes—a leader is considered to be either servant or toxic. While leadership theories are still being developed and taught within professional military education, it appears that the pendulum is swinging towards the seemingly polar extremes. Junior leaders do not see charismatic, transformational, or transactional leaders as effective but that the apex of a good leader is defined in their ability to serve their subordinates.

With that mentioned, can the military truly become an organization where servant leadership is the sought after and preferred leadership style for all? This article will take a brief examination of how complementary servant leadership is in a military environment. It concludes with positing that a servant leadership mentality, though it cannot be wholly ingrained through education, is as equally important of a leadership style as others and so must be considered.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

— William Arthur Ward

As practitioners of leadership, it is often overwhelming to stay up to date with the latest conversation regarding philosophies in leadership. Two chief leadership theories permeating military academia today are toxic leadership and servant leadership. Within this article, we will focus on the latter of the two—servant leadership.

As an emerging concept among the military, servant leadership first appeared more than half a century ago. There are without question parallels between military service and a person who swore an oath to serve and protect the US Constitution and the American people at all costs. Characteristics like self-sacrifice, humility, and selflessness come to mind when we imagine the ideal servant leader.

Most of us aspire to be servant leaders, and others want to work for one. While servant leadership has gained much visibility amongst rank and file, can this leadership model fit neatly within the military leadership continuum?

This article intends to examine whether servant leadership and the art of military leadership are conducive. With more and more leaders seeking to emulate this concept, a brief analysis will occur in this article on whether the idea of military leadership and servant leadership are complementary or mutually exclusive.

For consideration, those who exhibit servant leadership characteristics seek to be at the apex of any leadership continuum. This trait would be sought after and celebrated at any rank within a military organization. The central nature of this model is a leader-follower dynamic where the needs of the subordinate outweigh those of the leader and the organization. Robert Greenleaf believes that “the servant-leader is servant first” (Keith, 2020).

For reflection, both academic and practical experience have shown us that most leaders view themselves as some combination of a servant leader or exhibiting these traits. In our estimation, the most prominent leadership style is transactional in the military, but most leaders tend to define themselves as servants.

As this leadership style is highly desirable, leaders who claim to be servants often exhibit the concept of illusory superiority. Coined by both David Dunning and Justin Kruger, and affectionately known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, illusory superiority is the cognitive bias in which a member may objectively and mentally create the self-assurance to overestimate their abilities (Fehlhaber, 2017). It is a bias used on one’s self that directly relates to the overconfidence in one’s abilities. With that mentioned, it forces us to drive deeper into what is servant leadership at its core?

The term servant leadership was first published in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf in his dissertation The Servant as Leader. Greenleaf defines this leader’s focus as primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. He further asserts that “the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible” (What Is Servant Leadership?, n.d.).

If toxic leadership is on one end of a leadership continuum and servant leader on the other, then it stands to reason that one would actively seek to identify or embody the characteristics of servant leadership. Given the fact that so many military leaders have been relieved from positions due to creating a toxic work environment, it is no surprise that servant leadership is a hot topic of discussion within military academia.

Now that we have Greenleaf’s definition in mind, let’s discuss what military academia says about this concept. Master Sergeant (MSG) Aaron L. Griffing, XVIII Airborne Corps & Fort Bragg, Non-Commissioned Officer Academy defines servant leadership as leaders who “set aside their egos and seek to place the needs of others first to accomplish the mission and improve the organization” (Griffing, n.d.).

While this definition is intuitive, it does not line up precisely with Greenleaf’s aforementioned definition. Additionally, this delineation presents elements of the fallacy known as a false dilemma or false dichotomy. This fallacy is defined by when a “line of reasoning fails by limiting the options to two when there are in fact more options to choose from” (Staff, 2017).

True organizational dynamics are very complex and situationally based. The organizational needs of any unit will never be the same, and the above definition oversimplifies the causal relationship between organizational success and subordinate disposition. It does not explain why troops in the most austere conditions have such high morale. MSG Griffing argues that servitude, at its core, is placing aside one’s ego, where one may derive that the ego is what inhibits organizational success.

It also assumes that if a subordinate’s needs are first, then it will yield the greatest result in mission accomplishment. Simply put; (-Ego) + (+Subordinate Needs) = Improved Organizational & Mission Success. Of note, what happens when the needs of the individual’s conflict with the needs of the organization? Examples include long and extended deployments, missed holidays and significant dates, prolonged work hours, and members who can’t utilize earned leave due to additional duties.

Also, what happens when a member’s religious and spiritual freedoms are in direct conflict with mission accomplishments? Of course, our goal as leaders is to ensure maximum mission success with a minimal impact on the force.

While Greenleaf and other academics do an excellent job of outlining aspects of this concept, over the years the lack of academic agreement on servant leadership has caused some issues in narrowly defining this concept.

Leadership theorists like Patterson have argued and tried to expound upon Greenleaf’s definition by adding attributes of servant leadership. Leaders maintain humility, altruism, vision, trust, empowerment, and service are known to be servants (Earnhardt, 2008). Of note, these attributes are not exclusive and are also parts of other leadership paradigms and models.

Further, Matthew P. Earnhardt accomplished a limited qualitative study on military and servant leadership. The results simply yielded that subordinates preferred leaders that exhibit these characteristics (Earnhardt 2008). The study did not determine a link between leadership, the servant leadership model, subordinate dynamics, and successful mission execution.

For consideration, the military and other organizations have co-opted and created their own definition of what it means to be a servant leader. One of the most significant sticking points in defining a servant leader is what is a servant.

Greenleaf presents the belief that “the servantleader is servant first…. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead…. The leader-first and the servant-first are two extreme types” (What Is Servant Leadership?, n.d.). In his assertion, Greenleaf seems to define servant leadership with the repetitive use of “servant” and also does not provide a concrete definition. As such, how can one be a true servant without knowing what it means?

A servant is “a devoted and helpful follower or supporter.” (Servant | Definition of Servant by Oxford Dictionary on Lexico.Com Also Meaning of Servant, n.d.). Embedded in the definition of a servant is the concept of followership. A servant by nature is subordinate to someone higher. One could argue that this definition seeks to place the subordinate as the greater being, and thus, the needs of the team outweigh that of the organization or its leadership. In theory, this sounds like an idealistic place to work.

That said, could a business stay profitable if the individual subordinate needs were first? Author Lisa Mooney noted that “the servant leader can become so immersed in introspection and encouraging employees to look inward for meaning to their work that the company’s bottom line can suffer” (Mooney, n.d.). While this is a theoretical claim since no empirical research has been accomplished, it does raise the question: are we willing to sacrifice our “bottom-line” as a military for wholesale application and embodiment of this philosophy?

In short, can a servant, in the truest definition, also be a successful leader in the military? Famed civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that “he who is greatest among you shall be your servant” (1968). As a celebrated Christian pastor and Human Rights activist, it would make sense that servitude and greatness would be fundamental to Dr. King’s approach to leading. We present this Civil Rights icon because he is often referred to as a servant leader in the strictest sense.

Dr. King believed that “everybody can be great because everybody can serve” (ibid). He was able to articulate servitude by believing in the fact that you do not need to be at the top of the pyramid to make a difference. Instead, everyone must serve, and through service and submission, you can find greatness. One could argue that Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and Jesus of Nazareth were all historical examples of servant leaders.

Most servant leaders in history have changed the world by exercising servitude to the masses. For most individuals in the military, the notion of servant leadership as a primary style is not easily identified with the likes of Sun Zu, General Patton, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, or General Schwarzkopf. Instead, the image of a military leader can invoke visions of dominance, ruthlessness, defiant confidence, courage, and strength, but conversely not pure servitude.

Again, we believe that successful military leaders are not servant leaders exclusively. There are essential characteristics in the servant leader concept, but as a primary maxim of leading, it is not conducive to that of a good or great military leader.

If asked, no two individuals have the same definition of what makes a great military leader. Some would argue that greatness is defined in a leader’s ability to take care of others. Someone else can see greatness as whether a leader’s name is etched in stone or an echo throughout history.

Regardless of your definition, true success in the military is arguably a leader’s ability to accomplish the mission. Mission success is the social contract that we make with the American people upon our entrance into military service.

If we follow Greenleaf’s belief that servant leadership, “manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served” (What Is Servant Leadership?, n.d.), failure could be an option. In an organization where so much is at stake, mission success should be the highest priority and, when possible, individual needs.

Our goal is to be an instrument of national power, the warrior clan of our nation, and to protect and defend this nation and its interest at all costs to include our lives if necessary. As an abstract concept, the American people care about the military as individuals. Still, it is our combined strength and warrior ethos that they require and arguably not our servitude outside of this concept.

How does servant leadership compare to other leadership styles? Most of all, other leadership styles present in the military academic lexicon are focused on utilizing a leadership style to lead subordinates in the best way to accomplish the mission. Styles like transformational, transactional, and charismatic leadership all focus on utilizing the style as means to an end.

In contrast, servant leadership is a downward focus. The needs of the subordinates are first and more important than the greater organization (Earnhardt 2008). Additionally, it doesn’t address how this leadership style will lead to accomplishing the given mission. It directly contradicts the concept of service before self as a core value. Some academics argue that Greenleaf’s concept is not even a leadership style at all. In the article, Servant Leadership: Putting Your Team First, and Yourself Second, the author notes that, “servant leadership is not a leadership style or technique as such.

Rather it’s a way of behaving that you adopt over the longer term. It complements democratic leadership styles” (Servant Leadership – Leadership Tools and Models From MindTools. Com, n.d.). Just because we label something as a leadership model doesn’t make it so. To be effective, a model must accomplish a stated goal through a direct means. There is not enough empirical research to suggest either for or against this fledgling leadership philosophy.

In closing, as you look at the strict definition of servant leadership, it is important to note that the attributes of this type of leader are essential to be a successful leader in any organization. As individuals that have studied leadership and teach it, we believe that we create a binary concept regarding leadership theories in today’s academic environment. Either a leader is toxic or servant. The goal of understanding the art of leadership is giving current and future leaders a menu of items to choose from to lead their organizations successfully.

It is encouraging to see concepts like emotional intelligence being taught at the lowest levels of leadership at Air University and in Airman Leadership School. People are by far our greatest resource, and as such, leaders also fall into this category. We do a disservice to our Airmen and subordinate leaders by oversimplifying leadership and its complexity. The goal is to give leaders a swath of different styles that they can understand, accept, embrace, or reject.

This article started with a quote from William Arthur Ward, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires” (Ward, n.d.). The reason is fairly simple. At its core, the art of leading is about inspiring others to first accomplish the imaginable so that they may know the unimaginable can be accomplished as well.

It is more than just a single positive attribute that makes a good leader great but a myriad of different traits. Can we inspire greatness in the military through servant leadership? The jury is still out on this question. That said, we firmly believe that you cannot teach or train a person to be a servant. You can teach that service is important, but servitude is an act of selfless dedication.

As authors of this article, we believe that there is no one true effective leadership style. In short, much like the Blanchard Situational Leadership model, it is whatever style will best take care of the mission and the people—locating and performing in that equilibrium of mission success and people’s needs met is as dynamic as leadership itself.


Lt Col Boswell’s career spans more than 19 years as a Logistics Readiness Officer. His current duties are the Deputy of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) Air Force National Account Manager (AFNAM). In this capacity, Lt Col Boswell is the focal point for strategic logistics and supply chain management for the Air Force through the lens of DLA. He can be contacted at michael.boswell@dla.mil.

Capt Neal Gupta’s career spans five years as a Logistics Readiness Officer, serving as Flight Commander five consecutive times in the 96th Logistics Readiness Squadron, Eglin AFB, and 731st Air Mobility Squadron, Osan AB. He is currently a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Recovery Team Officer-In-Charge, where he plans, executes, and leads various Joint Field Activity missions with a team of multi-service members and host nation nationals in global recovery operations to locate and excavate US service member’s remains whom are still unaccounted for from past conflicts. He can be contacted at neal.k.gupta.mil@mail.mil.