The paradox of serving others

  • Published
  • By Col. John Michel
  • 319th Air Refueling Wing commander
This past weekend I had the great privilege of participating in our maintenance group's annual awards ceremony, better known as the Knucklebuster Ball. It was a fabulous event attended by almost 300 people assembled for the sole purpose of honoring those men and women who every day give the best of themselves to help make the mission of the "BRING IT!" wing happen -- rain or shine, snow or sleet, day or night, weekday or holiday. Professionals who aren't particularly interested in receiving accolades, compliments, or praise but intent on accomplishing the task at hand safely, smartly and above all, selflessly.

Perhaps it should be no surprise then that one of the heroes of the maintenance profession is a man who was a silent but essential participant in what remains one of history's most significant milestones: The first-ever manned flight at Kitty Hawk. A man who, unlike Wilbur and Orville Wright, isn't a household name but deserves just as much credit for making the first flying machine, the Wright Flyer, a success. 

It's a fascinating story of a truly selfless second-mile leader.
Auspicious beginnings 

In 1901 Charles E. Taylor started working at Wright Cycle Company repairing bikes and minding the store. With the Wright brothers working on a flying machine, they needed an engine and Taylor said he could do it. And he did. 

With the machinery that was in the bike shop, he succeeded in creating an engine that met specifications and performed to expectation. And, he accomplished this in a period of only six weeks. As a result of his tireless work behind the scenes, history was made with the first powered flight occurring December 17, 1903. 

Taylor continued working with the Wright brothers on many projects, upgrading engines and fixing the planes after flight testing. With the need to be closer to Dayton so they could make improvements to their aircraft for subsequent testing, Wilbur and Orville Wright asked Taylor to accompany them, which he did, where he assumed his new duties as America's first airport manager. After the Wrights were successful in securing a contract with the Army, Taylor helped to develop the engine for the first military plane in 1907. 

Charles E. Taylor went on to be involved in many more historical events related to the growth of aviation. He was essential to the first transcontinental flight, was inducted into the United States Air Force Museum Aviation Hall of Fame as the first airplane mechanic, and ultimately, the Federal Aviation Administration named its highest lifetime maintenance achievement award after him. 

However, what's important to note is that throughout his life, this selfless leader never sought the limelight and his numerous contributions to one of the world's greatest feats, manned flight, did not even come to light until after the deaths of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Taylor remained, until the day he passed away, a leader more interested in serving others than in serving himself. 

Placing the needs of others first 

As we've been exploring in this series on second-mile leadership, the dynamic nature of our world demands a different approach to leading in the 21st century. In the past, leadership in organizations has often revolved around a mindset that focused more on what was good for the leader than for the good of those being led. However, research continues to show that such an approach often impedes organizational productivity, diminishes effectiveness and negatively impacts morale. In fact, many of today's prominent new thinkers and writers in the area of leadership agree that we are long overdue for a shift to leadership that focuses less on the needs of the leader and more on the leader fulfilling the legitimate needs of those placed in the leaders care. 

In essence, it's clear we need more leaders like Charles E. Taylor, who are willing to selflessly go the second mile to help others succeed. 

Retired four-star general and former Military Airlift Command commander, Duane H. Cassidy, shares how important it is for leaders to be selfless in his article, A Leadership Perspective, Simply stated, he describes selflessness as "putting your own personal desires second to a higher cause or to other people." He goes on to add how "selflessness creates the group atmosphere, the team spirit we need to make a military organization capable of limitless activity -- rather than one that waits for someone else to get the job done." 

Putting selflessness into practice in the daily occurrences of our lives means we must accept that there are other things more important than our own comfort, self-promotion or self-satisfaction. In a world insistent on convincing us that success lies in how much we make, what we drive, where we live or how we look, it's quite easy to lose sight of what really matters -- selflessly giving our best to accomplish whatever task has been entrusted to our care. 

Admittedly, the idea of selflessness is not particularly new-nor is it complex. In fact, it's simply the opposite of selfishness. Selfless leaders think about how to make their homes, workplaces, worship spaces and communities a better place. They prefer to go the second mile rather than demand a second helping. In other words, they are people much like the men and women of our maintenance group who prefer giving to taking and who place concern for others above concern for themselves. 

You don't have to have all the answers 

Growing into a selfless second-mile leader also means you're willing to make the personal and professional goals of those around you your own. Although this concept may sound paradoxical, especially in a culture where leaders seem to thrive by pursuing their own interests, one of a leader's most effective tools to improve workplace interactions and promote an organization's mission is to take into account, and support fully, the goals and aspirations of coworkers -- absent any concern for whom might get the credit. 

This willingness to give more of oneself and not be concerned with who gets the credit is at the heart of second-mile leadership. It's what allows you to create a dynamic learning environment that encourages growth and development. In such an environment, the mistakes people make are viewed as opportunities to learn because people are recognized to have present value and future potential. People are celebrated for what they are capable of achieving, not humiliated when they fall short of their potential. 

And last, but certainly not least, becoming a selfless second-mile leader means you're humble enough to admit you don't have all the answers and sometimes, can't complete the task at hand alone. As it turns out, one of the most important leadership questions is, "Will you please help me?" When leaders ask this question it can have an infinite, incalculable effect. To understand the effect this question has on people, turn the tables a moment. Pretend a leader genuinely asks you for your help: how do you feel? What does the request say about the way the leader sees you? From my vantage point, it speaks volumes of the trust, confidence and respect they place in your opinion and there is no higher compliment you can be paid. 

Again, there is a paradox involved here, especially for those who believe that to ask for help shows weakness. The paradox is that leaders must be very strong and very self-confident to risk asking for help; and, paradoxically, there is no risk; rather, when they ask for help leaders are seen by their people as being worthy of increased stature, respect and even gratitude. 

A lifestyle of service

In my view, the willingness of our maintenance professionals to go the second mile for both the mission and one another speaks volumes of their commitment to selflessness. In every action they undertake, be it big or small, they reveal that they understand second-mile leadership has nothing to do with rank, position or power and everything to do with ones willingness to do what they must, when they must, where they must to ensure the mission gets accomplished, safely and smartly.

In others words, it's clear to me that the selfless spirit of Charles E. Taylor, the mechanic who helped change the world, is alive and well in the maintenance professionals of this great wing. Men and women who understand that second-mile leadership is not simply a series of activities to be mimicked or skills to be acquired but rather, a mindset, a lifestyle, an identity to be forged. 

On the morning of December 17, 1903, at the base of Kill Devil Hills, south of the village of Kitty Hawk, N.C., the Wright brothers made aviation history by successfully flying the first powered airplane. This achievement would not have been possible if it were not for Charles Edward Taylor, the man behind the scene responsible for assisting in the design, development and production of the first aircraft engine. 

Charles Taylor remains an unsung hero whose achievements and importance have been all but overlooked. Although just about every child knows about Orville and Wilbur Wright, most have never heard of Charles Edward Taylor. However, Taylor's selfless example lives on proudly in the maintenance professionals we are privileged to serve with every day here at Grand Forks Air Force Base -- men and women who continue to place a premium on serving others ahead of serving themselves. 

Not because they have to, but because they choose to. 

Simply because that's what second-mile leaders do.