The Essence of Servant Leadership

Nov 4, 2020

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins studies what differentiates great companies from good companies. The answer? Great leadership.

I’m not surprised. Not only did I spend 15 years in the world’s greatest leadership laboratory (the U.S. military), but I have also worked for some fantastic people whose leadership had obvious positive impacts on their organizations. So what did I learn over the course of 30-odd years while working with some amazing leaders? It’s simple—leadership matters, especially servant leadership. Servant leaders put the needs of others first to meet the collective goals of the company. Without great (or at least good) servant leadership, organizations fail.

You may be thinking, “There are companies out there with pretty poor and absent leadership. How the heck are they still around?” That’s a great question. These companies may be around for a little while, but ultimately will run into an unforgiving brick wall. Don’t take it from me. Even a casual review of authoritative writing will quickly establish that great leadership is key for organizations to succeed and thrive.

As I help companies in their agile transformations, I get to see leadership (or the lack thereof) up close. There is a significant difference between leadership being present vs. absent. Organizations with involved servant leaders are the ones who successfully transform themselves into Lean-Agile organizations. As leaders put the needs of their employees first, people start to love their work and in turn drive tons of value for customers.

An example of great servant leadership

I’m going to share the story of the first time I experienced great servant leadership. It happened around 2 in the morning. I was a young Air Force airman in the middle of a stressful Operational Readiness (“OR”) exercise, in which our entire Air Force air wing had to prove it was able to perform its primary mission in the event of war. We had flunked our previous OR, and it sucked. Full colonels had been fired, and the new leadership had ratcheted up our work hours, the intensity, and anything else that stressed us out.

Everyone up and down the rank structure was on edge. We were cautious, risk-averse, and did everything by the book because inspectors were evaluating us. We were always under pressure to perform, not to mention we were in a situation where several colonels could mess up and all of us would pay the price.

Anyway, it was 2 AM in the Life Support shop where I was working, and we were having a heck of a time getting our trucks to deliver survival equipment to airplanes about to launch. Security personnel on the flight line were understandably nervous about having even a minor security incident, so they checked and double-checked everything. They got so backed up that it became impossible for people to access the flight line, including people who were well-known and normally had easy access.

Personal recognition is a valid way to identify someone as being authorized. Even though the security personnel knew some of us well, they ignored this fact and still went by the book, checking our credentials and each truck up and down. What should have been quick deliveries turned into late ones. There was a lot of unnecessary waste in this process. Security still could’ve been highly secure by smartly applying when to be precise and when to be somewhat accommodating.

Everyone became stressed and angry. Even though we busted our butts, we would likely end up with a poor rating because we couldn’t get the equipment to the airplanes. We were in the shop lamenting our woes, when Colonel B, our Director of Operations, strolled in. After the wing commander, Colonel B was the most important decision maker in our wing. He was intimidating, with a reputation of being impatient with people who didn’t know their stuff. All of us nervously stood at attention. (You may not know this, but for a low ranking enlisted guy like me, a “full colonel” was a big deal, someone only a few degrees removed from God. So us low ranking peons were really nervous.)

Colonel B, however, was jovial and curious. He looked at us and said, “You know who I am and what I can do. So tell me right now—what I can do to make your lives easier? How can I help you do better on this exercise?”

We were flabbergasted and didn’t know what to say. Thankfully, one of our NCOs mustered the courage to speak up about the trouble we’d been having with security on the flight line. Colonel B pulled out his brick (radio), talked to his counterpart in charge of security, exchanged some pleasantries and then quickly got down to business. “We have some issues with your guys on the flight line. Can you help me fix them?”

And just like that, an intractable impediment instantly dissolved. The number two guy in our wing drove around all night, using his rank and stature to quickly resolve issues none of us had the power to solve. He did not bark out orders. Instead, he listened to what his people had to say and used their knowledge to make informed decisions.

What can we learn from a great servant leader?

This may seem like a simplistic example, but it was servant leadership at its finest. Rather than asking for updates and status reports, Colonel B was present and with us “in the trenches.” He removed obstacles to empower low ranking people like me to do our jobs. His actions became the stuff of legends. “Remember when Colonel B showed up at 2 AM? We should have asked for so much more!”

What can we learn from a great servant leader?

A great servant leader is there through all the BS so you can remain focused on what you’re good at. Furthermore, they trust you to do your job to the best of your ability. This trust, in turn, motivates you to be your best and excel. When a hard-charging leader has your back, it’s easier to take risks, to step out of your comfort zone and try new things. It’s how innovation happens.

A great servant leader isn’t necessarily your buddy, just ask the people who worked for Steve Jobs. But they show up when it counts and work with you. They have high standards and may expect you to work hard, but they’re also fair and realistic. A great leader practices Gemba, walking around and meeting people where they work.

A leader who says things like “I don’t care, just get it done,” leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth because they’re unfair and unhelpful. When I became an officer, I wanted to prepare myself to surpass mediocrity and grow into a great servant leader. The lesson I learned from Colonel B at 2 AM left an indelible impression on me; I try to emulate his behavior. That’s the other thing about great leaders—they leave a lasting impression; one you want to emulate so that you might also become a great leader, not for the people you lead, but for the people who choose to follow you and that you, in turn, serve to the best of your abilities.

Written by Rodger Koopman


With over 30 years in technology, Rodger started his career as an Air Force officer developing weapons guidance systems and global terrestrial & satellite networks, working strategically in counter-terrorism at the joint DoD level. After retiring from the Air Force, Rodger was an early employee in two successful start-ups and a key participant in five mergers & acquisitions. When Itron acquired Rodger’s first startup, he was tasked by Itron’s CEO to move to Raleigh, NC to lead and re-organize Itron’s R&D office. Rodger has led numerous successful implementations of highly effective Agile practices and automated DevOps pipelines in both startups and multiple Fortune 100 companies. Now an Enterprise Coach, Rodger is a certified SAFe 4.6 Program & DevOps Consultant (SPC, SPD) and certified AgilityHealth Facilitator.