Leading with humility and selfless service

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Esther Willett
  • Air Force District of Washington Public Affairs
As a captain, she attended a Dining In during which a two-star general who had flown with her dad greeted her when he recognized her from family pictures in her father's cockpit. Her father, an F-4 backseater, was shot down three days before her sixth birthday.

Col. Sharon Bannister, the 79th Medical Wing commander, aspires to be the type of leader who will be able to recognize the children of the people who work for her.

"Aren't those the type of leaders you want to work for?" asked Bannister. "I've been put in this position to work beside these great Airmen performing an incredible mission. It's not about being the leader. It's about what you can do in those leadership positions."

After learning about different leadership styles in Professional Military Education throughout her career, Bannister chose the concept of servant leadership because it complements Air Force core values and expresses everything she believes leadership is about.

"To me, servant leadership fits really well with military service because it's not about me. I'm not the king at the top of the pyramid," Bannister said. "Every single person has a role to play to make an organization run."

A leader's job is to leverage their position to serve the members of the organization, said Bannister.

"It's making sure you're serving the people who are serving you. I occasionally get to go see patients. But it's our young officers, it's our providers, our young airmen who are giving immunizations or working a records issue or helping people navigate through systems. They're the ones doing it, so how do I make their job easier?"

Focusing on Airmen's needs and accepting their contributions enhances organizational capacity and trust, said Bannister. Leaders at all levels also need to be attentive to Airmen's feedback and questions.

"Sometimes the longer you do something, the less you question the why," Bannister said. "You have to have your youngest Airmen asking, 'Why do we do that, why do we do it that way?' Everybody needs to have a voice. It's the only way we can do it."

Servant leadership takes both humility and confidence in one's ability to get the job done, said Bannister. Humility means adopting a position where it's not about me, and confidence allows a leader to leverage experience to make things better, she added.

"I don't look at confidence and humility as opposite ends of a spectrum," Bannister said. "I think you can be confident in your leadership. I'm confident in what I'm able to do because of all the steps I took to get here. All those different things helped mold me into who I am. They helped me to know who to reach out to in order to help our people."

Learning other people's stories will make you a more humble person, said Bannister, whose own story contributed largely to the leader she is today.

"When my dad got shot down, my mom was making minimum wage," said Bannister. "She had to work hard to raise two kids, and she worked very, very hard to raise herself up to a great job. It taught us a lot of independence. It taught us hard work is necessary; you don't get everything handed to you."

Humility doesn't mean undermining the successes you've had, Bannister concluded. It means recognizing how you got there, she added, to include your hard work and other people's contributions to your life.

Bannister makes an effort to cultivate humility and servant leadership in her wing by encouraging her squadron commanders to tell their Airmen's stories regularly at wing standups.

"The people we serve are amazing," Bannister said. "I am wowed all the time by our Airmen."