Honoring a Servant Leader

  • Published
  • By Colonel Jon A. Roop, 11th Wing commander
  • 11th Wing Public Affairs
American warfighters have a rich heritage of honoring bravery, valor, and excellence. Throughout history veterans have gathered around small campfires to share stories of personal triumphs and extraordinary service of fallen patriots. This week our Air Force gathered at Arlington National Cemetery to share one last accounting of the servant leadership displayed by Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Paul W. Airey.

What is the essence of servant leadership? The essential quality that sets servant leaders apart from leaders is that they live by their conscience...the inward moral sense of what is right and what is wrong. That one quality is the difference of leadership that works and leadership that endures. At heart, the individual is a servant first, making the conscious decision to lead in order to better serve others, not to increase their own power. The objective is to enhance the growth of individuals in the organization and increase teamwork and personal involvement.

The traits of a servant leader are grounded in commitment, compassion, courage and a humble character. Chief Airey showed commitment to the ideals of excellence, hope, freedom and the mission of the armed services. Even after losing his freedom while in captivity as a prisoner of war during World War II, he made a conscience choice to re-enlist. He freely committed to support and defend the principles of our constitution.

His compassion was extraordinary; he served fourteen years of his career as a first sergeant. He understood that if you capture the heart, you capture the Airman. He captured hearts through trust and respect. He patiently served because he knew that trust aligns with honesty and is earned over a long period of time. Respect aligns with the art of listening. He considered hearing Airmen as an emotional process rather than a physical act.

Chief Airey also demonstrated that courage matters. His actions remind us that courage is an inner strength. It manifests itself through compassionate encouragement of others, as well as in having the courage to take risks, to choose action over drifting! Chief Airey courageously championed the creation of the Weighted Airmen Promotion System. He also saw the need for increased professional education of senior noncommissioned officers, and succeeded in creating the schoolhouses we now take for granted. He looked past daily problems to focus on tomorrow's opportunities.

Character is at the core of a servant leader's drive for authenticity and trustworthiness. Chief Airey wrote the Air Force core values on his heart. Serving as the first Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, he created a values-centered and performance-driven organization. Chief Airey was a man of character who left us an ethos of servant leadership based on ideals, carried out through purposeful acts of kindness.

Chief Airey listened, learned, and then served with unequaled commitment. As we gathered to pay our last respects at Arlington, I recall Chief Airey's response when asked about his greatest accomplishments, Airey demurred; "...let history answer. I did my best to do what I was trained to do....and that's how I want to be remembered." Let us honor our fallen leader by choosing to emulate his example of servant leadership.