To Battle We Go: True servant leaders are last in chow line
By: Steve Kellner
‘To Battle We Go’ is a column exploring how the principles, practices and culture of our military services might apply to The Salvation Army
On my second day of U.S. Army basic training I was informed that I had been selected to be the “platoon guide,” a kind of trainee assistant to my drill sergeants or, in their colorful language, the “chief maggot.” As a raw recruit, I had no qualifications for the job, and I’m convinced to this day that my selection was a clerical error. But, I knew enough to salute and obey orders.
I was soon issued a black armband with sergeant’s stripes and put to work. My first few days were a comedy of errors. Among my many miscues was nearly marching my platoon into a brick wall (yes, just like in the movies) because I didn’t know how to halt them. Corrections to my poor job performance were delivered in close proximity and at high volume by my drill sergeants, as you might imagine!
An important leadership lesson came at my first meal as a new platoon guide. Standing in the chow line, I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Leaders eat last,” Drill Sergeant Anderson announced as he moved me to the end of the line. I ate last at every meal from that day on. And I learned to eat fast, because by the time I got my food the drill sergeants were standing up to leave, which meant the meal was over.
This “Leaders Eat Last” principle was applied in many other ways over the nine weeks of my training. When it came to privileges, like meals, mail, extra sleep, and passes to leave the base, I was always at the end of the line. When it came to difficult or unpleasant tasks, like being the first trainee to stumble through the obstacle course or being held responsible for the actions of others, I was first up. My one privilege was having an alarm clock, but only because I had to get up earlier than the rest of my platoon.
I didn’t realize at the time how deeply this leadership principle was being “drilled” (pardon the pun) into me by my sergeants, but it has influenced my life and leadership greatly in the nearly 40 years since my boot camp experience, even if I have often fallen short of the ideal.
Of course, the military didn’t originate the idea of servant leadership. The exemplar of that principle was Jesus, who, though he was God incarnate, washed the feet of his disciples and said that whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. (Matthew 20:26) And Paul reminds us that we should Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:3-4)
Leaders at every level of The Salvation Army would do well to apply the “Leaders Eat Last” principle. Spiritual leadership means always putting the needs of others before our own. Everyone notices and is encouraged when a leader refuses privileges and chooses to serve others by performing the hard or unpleasant tasks. And, don’t be fooled: They also notice when a leader doesn’t do this.
Another well-known military aphorism is “Rank Has Its Privileges,” but this is said pejoratively, and isn’t a military or biblical principle. The higher the position of leadership, the more a leader has to resist the privileges that will naturally accrue if left unchecked. Better to follow the example of Jesus, who merited every privilege imaginable but chose instead to serve undeserving sinners like us.