Leadership Lessons: Why Do You Serve?

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Marc Schoellkopf
  • 319th Medical Group superintendent
As Airmen, we all serve. From the airman basic to the chief of staff, we all serve. Our government civilians serve. Our spouses and children serve. We are part of the Air Force family, which exists solely to protect our great nation and all of its citizens.

We protect our citizens' freedom of speech; the right to criticize our actions; the right to question the government policies which we follow as required through our chain of command. We are in the business of public service, and it is never about us.

Why do I serve? My answer has changed over the years, like I'm sure it has for many of you. I don't see the world the same way as I did as an airman basic. My needs, beliefs, and values have changed and grown with the experiences and opportunities that our Air Force has provided for me.

Nonetheless, it is a very important question that I have spent countless hours debating at each and every reenlistment. In order to reenlist, I had to provide myself with a positive response to two very fundamental questions: 1) Do I still enjoy what I do? and 2) Am I still contributing?

If the answer to either question had been a "No," then it would have been time to seek employment elsewhere. The first question has usually been easy to answer; the latter is a little more difficult and takes some self-reflection and taking into account honest feedback from subordinates, peers, and supervisors.

During my chief master sergeant orientation, I vividly remember some of my peers being taken aback when then Chief Master Sgt. James Cody, Air Education and Training Command's Command Chief, said: "We are the Air Force... not a job corps." As the discussion continued, more and more of them started buying into this philosophy and realigned themselves to the "right side of the issue." Backstories on why we don't meet standards are usually interesting... but they are always irrelevant! As supervisors, once we remove our emotions we can look at issues objectively and stop treating good workers as good Airmen. Our Core Values separate the two.

I have caught myself plagiarizing the aforementioned quote several times. I have used it to illustrate my belief that professional duties take precedence over personal desires.

During my time in AETC, I had the opportunity to talk to thousands of Airmen, and one of my main questions during briefings was, "Why did you join to serve?" Even after ten years of varying duties in Basic Military Training, I was still amazed how much their answers changed in just a few weeks.

It always seemed as if I had asked two different questions. The initial answers were generally pretty similar because they only heard "Why did you join?"

"To travel and see the world, to get an education, to get away from my folks" were the responses that topped the list. Just before graduation, however, the answers were different.

The responses included being part of a higher calling, upholding democracy, and being part of an organization where responsibility, accountability, justice, and humility are at the forefront of our daily actions. They had finally heard "Why do you Serve?"

We all "got it" during our initial accessions training. We were fired up to answer our nation's call with little regard for our own personal gain. As Airmen in the most sophisticated air arm of the most powerful military on the globe, it is incumbent upon us to live our Core Values on a daily basis, not only on the job but in all our actions 24/7; to strive for perfection and to reject mediocrity both in our personal behavior and in the performance of our teams and subordinates. It is not only about doing it right, but also not tolerating those who violate rules and standards.

If we no longer "get it," our duties and responsibility become a job rather than a career of service. It is at that time that we have a decision to make: "Do I get back in line, or do I seek employment elsewhere?"

Abraham Lincoln once said, "If I do my full duty, the rest will take care of itself." Those words hold as true today as they did in his day. As Airmen, we all serve. We are in the business of public service, and it is never about us.

The next time you get dressed to go to work, take one more look in the mirror and ask yourself: "Why do I serve?"