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I once had an experience
that for me was a simulation of servant leadership. I was working with the
Oregon Air National Guard and was scheduled to go up in an F-15. But because
Congress has put its foot down on such flights without special permission, it
was canceled. When I checked into it and saw the kind of strength you need in
your back and neck muscles to deal with those Gforces, I was glad my flight was
Anyway, they put me in a
flight simulator, and while I was in the simulator, I was attacked by different
“bandits” that tried to shoot me down. An instructor taught me how to
use the stick in my right hand and the guns in my left hand to fight the
bandits. My teenage son, Joshua, could easily have killed these bandits,
because he plays all these video games, but I was just total thumbs and they
shot me down one right after another.
Then they sent across the
screen a “dumb bandit.” It couldn’t shoot me down, but I had to shoot
it down. Well, I sat there for fifteen minutes, and I could not kill this
bandit. Finally, the commander put his hands on my hands and showed me how to
do it.
Next, they took me into a
room where pilots go after they’ve had their “dog fights.” In this room,
the pilots see visual recreations of the encounters as captured from the
perspective of the other planes. So I sat there as they showed the pictures
taken from different angles by planes involved in this simulation.
The commander sat next to
me and showed me how my plane was seen from all the other angles on these
simulated combat missions. So, in this way, I had access to all the data. The
commander helped me interpret the data and understand what was happening and why.
He explained why I should have done this or that. Of course, I was very open to
his instruction because we share the same objective to save our lives, to win
the battle, and to preserve the peace. So we quickly formed a relationship
based on trust, shared vision, common purpose, and access to all the
From this experience, I
gained important insights about servant leadership. At first, I had a limited
vision and had trouble working the controls. I was being shot down all the
time. Even with the instructor’s hands over mine, I could hardly shoot down a
dumb bandit.
But after seeing the big
picture, the shared vision and mission, I had a much broader awareness of what
was going on. With a servant leader by my side, I learned fast.
This experience
represents the difference between “go-fer” delegation (go for this,
now do this, now do that) and empowerment (let’s spend the time to set up the
agreement and to operate within the guidelines, but from the moment we set it
up, you’re responsible for desired results, and I’m a source of help).
In her book, The New
Science of Leadership, Meg Wheatley teaches the same basic principle. She says
what you need is a common vision and purpose, and free information flow,
because it’s going to be chaotic, and you’ve got to expect it. But use chaos to
your advantage. Let people have whatever information comes in, and then become
a source of help to them.


The servant leader often
has to help expand vision and perspective, and then bring to bear his experience.
But people want it. They’re asking for it, because their lives are at stake.
They know that their organizations are fighting for their economic life. And so
the people working under the servant leader have more responsibility and
accountability. They’re at the controls and sense that they’re in charge, that
this isn’t a game any more, that there’s something at stake here.
By Zaine Ridling, Ph.D.  from “7 habits of highly effective people”

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