#42 Selfless Service

"Put the welfare of the Nation, the Army and your subordinates before your own." - FM 6-22

As I have made my way through the Army value system over the last few weeks, I have not always been able to form a concise thesis statement for my thoughts. Words on a page, written in a manual, that appear in form to be very black and white and clear cut, seem to run into vast grey areas as I try to think through them. I get the feeling that today will be no different.

In the Army Field Manual on Leadership, FM 6-22, the section on selfless service is a total of 5 paragraphs long. In the first of those 5 paragraphs you find the following quote:

"While the needs of the Army and the Nation should come first, it does not imply family or self-neglect. To the contrary, such neglect weakens a leader and can cause the Army more harm than good."

That sentence troubles me because it is exactly at the juxtaposition of priorities between organizational and personal requirements that we run into problems. First, while it may be a word game, the Army does not come before the Nation. The Nation is why we exist. We have an Army to serve the needs, values, and requirements of the Nation. Get the order wrong, as I think the manual does, and you set up an incorrect structure. First you selflessly serve the Army, and then we'll get to the Nation. Nope. It must always remain the other way around. First comes the Nation and then comes the Army. In fact, serving the Nation can be done in millions of ways and happens every day. Every doctor, teacher, soup kitchen worker, civil service member, civic or faith based organization member etc provides a service to our nation. The Army is only one possible way to be a selfless servant. We often forget that. Look around your community and you will find those servants everywhere. It is not the special province of those in uniform.

Second, and even more importantly, the quote does not offer any ideas on how to manage the conflict between service to the Army and the familial and personal neglect that does, and will, arise. That puts each Soldier in a constant state of struggle when their personal needs and those of their loved ones must be continually sacrificed for the organization. Especially at a time when many are questioning wether or not the organization really does care about them.

The current war has lasted 8 years. Far longer than was ever expected. Over 4000 service members have been killed. In most cases, we are no longer trying to figure out who has deployed and who hasn't, but rather how many times a service member has deployed. The military has approximately 1.5 million members. Considering the fact that at any one time about 300,000 are deployed across the world, that means that we've almost turned the entire service 3 times since the war began. Units on my post are facing their 4th or 5th year long deployment. How is it possible for me to balance my obligation to the Nation and the Army against the strain and demands that are being placed upon my family? How much service is enough? When have I done my part? When have I lived up to my obligation to the Nation and the Army?

Then we need to look at the portion concerning welfare of subordinates. A subordinate is a person. A human being. Which means that I as a leader am responsible to provide for the welfare of a human being. In an earlier post (# 28) I referenced Army Regulation 600-20 'Army Command Policy' that states that a leader has a requirement to meet the needs of a subordinate across 4 domains, physical, mental, material, and spiritual. Leaders are required to provide for the welfare of their Soldiers in those 4 manners collectively, and yet what skills or education do we provide them to accomplish this? From my experience and schooling, none. I have never been taught how to balance the competing demands of selfless service to the Nation and the Army against the human being requirements of my Soldiers. I have learned how to do it over time, experience and age. It has become what is often called wisdom.

When I was a young man service to the Army was my only imperative. The organization told me what it needed me to do and I did it. And that was ok because, although there was sacrifice involved, I really didn't have any competing demands. And the Nation was not at war. For as much as we thought we were working hard and selflessly serving, we really weren't. For every demand placed upon us we were compensated somehow down the road. Selfless service was easy.

Now I am older. I have a family and some of my priorities have changed. We are involved in a protracted war that is ill-defined and likely will persist on different fronts for decades to come. There will not be an endless series of days for me to make up time lost with my wife and daughter. I have learned that life is fleeting. I have memorialized young men who thought that they too would have an endless series of days. And I am left to wonder, how selfless can my service be? Is the possibility of creating a widow and a fatherless child in order to fulfill my obligation to the Nation worth it?

And while we're at it, Selfless Service implies sacrifice for the individual Soldier. That's a given. But what about the families and children and others who, by extension, are also selflessly serving their country and the Army? Make no mistake, the demands that the Army makes on me are easily exceeded by the demands it places upon my wife. And because she is not under some form of contract to the Army, she truly is serving as a volunteer. No compensation, no promotion, no obligation. Only because she is willing to put the Nation, the Army and me above her dreams and aspirations is she willing to accept this sacrifice for our family. Funny, but the manual doesn't address her at all. The Command Policy regulation does, but the leadership manual does not. I wonder why that is? Shouldn't leadership education include an understanding of those regulations that the Army calls it's bedrock imperatives? As a husband and father I know that I cannot equally meet my obligations to both the Army and my family. The difficulty is finding the balance. Maybe we ought to start looking at issues like that in our leadership schools....

And that is the part of Selfless Service that the 5 paragraphs don't address. That each of us will have to reach these decisions and conclusions for ourselves. As I work my way through the Army Values they should serve to drive me back into my own heart and mind to resolve the conflict that each of them raises. They should serve to remind me to reevaluate every now again what my priorities are and how near or far they are from the institution's stated norms.

I often use quotations to help me crystallize my thoughts. In light of this post, here are some I found today that strike a chord with me:

"You can only govern by serving them. The rule is without exception." - Victor Cousin

"Men grow only in proportion to the service they render to their fellow men and women" - Captain Edward V. Rickenbacher

"If in the last few years you haven't discarded a major opinion, or discovered a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead." - Gelett Burgess

The first quote follows my line of thought regarding servant leadership. We serve down. Those we lead do not exist for us to practice leadership. They exist for us to provide selfless service. The second quote recognizes the individual sense of well being that comes from possessing a servant oriented soul. The last is included because it is the reason for the blog.

To figure out who you are and what you value is the very first - and most important - responsibility of leadership.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.