Selfless Service

The Lost Value

The Pendulum
Jun 23, 2015 · 7 min read

The following guest post was provided by Colonel Chip Bircher, the Director of the Army’s Information Operations Proponent. The views expressed are solely his, and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Army, or random hitchhikers on the nation’s freeways.

My usual passion for coffee-driven deep thoughts is mentorship (or scotch-driven, in the case of Doctrine Man). However, over the past couple of months I have spent a good bit of time reflecting on the Army Values as part of these mentoring discussions. You remember them — we were issued a Graphic Training Aid way-back-when and walked past posters extolling those virtues in just about every headquarters: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, Personal Courage.

The Army Values

The acronym “LDRSHIP” is a great way for new Soldiers to memorize the Army Values, but how often do we as Leaders look deeper than the catchy slogan and actually think about the meaning of the words behind it?

Earlier this spring, I was asked to lead a professional development discussion (there’s that mentorship thing again) for an ROTC program; the topic was ostensibly “Officership,” meaning what is expected of young officers, and what the Army holds for them in the future. The second part was easy — I leaned heavily on the Army Operating Concept, “Win in a Complex World,” to discuss the challenges the Army will face in the future operating environment. The concept of “officership” was a little more daunting. The Army Values are a great starting point, and I’ve heard LTG Robert “Bob” Brown, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, describe one of the challenges we as a service face: we used to say we expect Soldiers to do what’s right when no one is looking; now we have to do what’s right when the whole world is watching. A great way to tie the pervasive media and access to information we expect in the future operating environment with the importance of Values to our profession.

The Scout Law

As I pondered what words of wisdom I would bring to these eager minds (and keep their attention), I found myself thinking about other values-based sources: specifically The Boy Scout Law (A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent). I realize I run the risk of being branded a dinosaur, but Boy Scouts played a significant role in my childhood and that of my two sons. Surely the similarities between the Army Values and the Boy Scout Law can’t be accidental: Loyalty appears in both; Personal Courage and Brave address the courage to “do what’s right”; Respect is synonymous with Courteous and Kind; Duty and Obedient share the same words; Trustworthy is the foundation of Honor and Integrity. Okay, maybe Clean doesn’t have a direct corollary, but you get the drift.

But what about Selfless Service?

Put the welfare of the nation, the Army and your subordinates before your own. Selfless service is larger than just one person. In serving your country, you are doing your duty loyally without thought of recognition or gain. The basic building block of selfless service is the commitment of each team member to go a little further, endure a little longer, and look a little closer to see how he or she can add to the effort.

I am probably speaking in generalities and jaded by my own experiences, but I really do believe our Soldiers and Leaders are putting the needs of their subordinates ahead of their own. I see the sacrifices these men and women make for each other every day. But I have to think the words were prioritized deliberately: Nation, Army, Subordinates. What do we expect Soldiers to do when the needs of the Nation or Army run counter to their personal needs or the needs of their families — “Suck it up!” or “Don’t let the screen door hit you on your way out!”? With all the talk about talent management, are we effectively balancing the needs of the Army with the personal and professional goals of the Soldier? When the two don’t coincide, who loses? Lots of open-ended questions here, I know, but if we don’t have the discussion now we run the risk of alienating an entire generation of Leaders when our talent management words don’t match our assignment policy deeds.

Two years ago, Time Magazine ran a cover article by Joel Stein about the millennial generation — “The Me Me Me Generation” (hyperlink is to the Time website, requires a subscription, but the .pdf can be found easily). Unfortunately, I found myself agreeing as the author painted a pretty bleak picture of millennials as self-absorbed narcissists. Plenty of counter-points ensued, but the damage to the narrative had been done. This morning, I came across an interesting read by Fareed Zakaria in The Atlantic — “The Try Hard Generation.” Mr. Zakaria presents a compelling argument that millennials may not be as self-centered as we, more seasoned leaders (code for old), may believe. According to a 2014 Nielsen report Mr. Zakaria cites, millennials are significantly more apt to volunteer, donate time and money, or work for a non-governmental organization than I was led to believe by Mr. Stein. They also live in an information-based society, not an industrial based one as their predecessors did, which contributes to perceptions of narcissistic tendencies. Think Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants.

I was having a conversation about the Army Values the other day with one of the officers I mentor. He related a tale about being asked by a senior rater what he (the officer) felt was the most important Army Value. Without hesitation, the officer replied “Loyalty, sir.” The senior rater pondered this response, and after a few moments responded that he could understand why the officer said this, but the most important value is Integrity. I’m not going to debate the validity of either point of view, but if the recent report published by the Army Strategic Studies Institute, “Lying to Ourselves: Dishonesty in the Army Profession,” is to be believed, we might have some growing to do in this value.

On a similar tangent, I often have the chance to discuss values with young men. As I said earlier, Boy Scouts has played a significant role in my life and that of my sons — it’s something we do together. As a volunteer leader, I often sit on Boards of Review as young Scouts, ages 11–17, attempt to earn their next rank — think of it as Soldier and NCO Promotion Boards with more patches. Each board of review I’ve sat on has asked the often-terrified Scout which point of the Scout Law is the most important, and which is the most difficult, to follow. No surprise to most parents, “Clean” is the overwhelming, hands-down winner for most difficult to follow. What may come as a surprise is that the majority of these Scouts pick “Friendly” and “Kind” as the most important — maybe the Golden Rule and Robert Fulghum’s “All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” are still going strong.

How does this fit into the value of “Selfless Service”? I don’t know. But I have some thoughts.

Perhaps it’s time to reexamine what the Army defines as “Selfless Service.” For most of my career I’ve had this concept paraphrased to me as personal sacrifice in favor of the greater good — probably why Nation and Army come before subordinates in the explanation. If younger Soldiers and Leaders are predisposed to “Lean In” or give of themselves (they are, after all, representative samples of millennials and have already committed to something larger than themselves — by joining the Army), shouldn’t the amplification of “Selfless Service” acknowledge this, and maybe even encourage it?

My proposal is simple: Change the second phrase in the definition, “Selfless service is larger than just one person,” to be “Selfless service means committing to a greater good and at times placing the needs of the Nation and Army ahead of one’s personal goals.” Imagine the profession and ethics discussions that could come out of that one small nuance, and the talent management implications that would follow.

While I may not have learned everything I needed to know while in kindergarten, I do remember the twelve points of the Scout Law and I do believe core values matter, whether we’re talking about developing youth leaders or Leaders for our nation. But if you subscribe to what’s written in the Army Operating Concept, and I am appropriately guilty, then maybe the meaning behind our institutional Dogma needs to adapt as the operating environment evolves.

Beyond the Objective

Living, Learning, Leading

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