A Note on “Service Before Self”



“Service Before Self” implies that both service and self are important, and that a certain balance and priority between the two should be pursued. If the idea was to simply serve at the total expense of self, then self wouldn’t need to be mentioned at all.

To give this core value meaning and allow it to do the work it must do for the Air Force to thrive, leaders must ensure service orientation and expectations don’t become so onerous that they totally eclipse individual identity and aspirations. Airmen are people too. They’re Americans. They’re spouses, siblings, friends, sons, and daughters. If the demands of service become too extreme to allow them to fill these roles, they’ll depart. The first to go will be those with meaningful moral commitment to the people in their lives. In other words, just exactly the sorts of people we should want to remain.

To restore the true meaning of “Service Before Self” and allow it to carry the weight of its own words, leaders must refrain from serially asking for unreasonable sacrifice. They have to give people time to themselves. They have to concede intellectual real estate instead of trying to conquer the minds of airmen. Most of all, leaders must set up a system that allows airmen to cultivate healthy relationships outside of work.

Using “Service Before Self” as a coercive tool or a shaming device is unacceptable. Using it in any manner is unacceptable. It’s something we want people to live, not an emotional lever for managers to yank when they want people to shut up and color.

A value system is only as good as an organization’s standard-bearers allow it to be. If abused, a value system can actually harm the organization by incentivizing the wrong things at the expense of the right ones. Permitted to corrode, it can displace morality and ethics, becoming its own legitimized behavioral code that falls short of both.

It’s time for the Air Force to reclaim its core values. That starts with thinking more carefully about them and discussing what they mean … as well as what they don’t mean.

What do you think “Service Before Self” means? Is the Air Force allowing this value to operate correctly?

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