A Call for Action: leveraging emotional intelligence to build a successful US Space Force

  • Published
  • By Maj. Matthew Douglas, Director of Staff
  • Space Delta 3

Many superheroes have been created over the years that exemplify what it means to go above and beyond the call of duty. In his role as a fan favorite hero, Captain America, Chris Evans said “The strength of this country isn’t in buildings of brick and steel. It’s in the hearts of those who have sworn to fight for its freedom!”

Superheroes serve others not only because they have special powers, but also because serving others is a part of who they are and who they have grown to become. They are also fun to experience for the entertainment value. Even though superheroes don’t exist, there have been relatable leaders in America who have defined what it means to be a different kind of superhero. These realistic superheroes are servant leaders. 


Leaders create paths with mission, vision and an aspiration for change, but arguably only great leaders choose to serve others below them and empower them to reach greatness. Ken Blanchard and Renee Broadwell discuss two styles of leadership including servant leadership and transactional leadership. The servant leader definition has two parts to it. The first part includes a vision/direction for the strategic role, which is the leadership part, and there is an implementation/operational role in which the servant portion shines through. Servant leaders are leaders who completely re-balance the chain of command making subordinates feel valued. They put the needs of everyone on the team first, while developing everyone around them so they can grow into their potential. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down because the leader serves the people. This doesn’t mean the leader serves from a point of weakness but rather maintains the top position, building up the team while working on problems and solutions as a group. When leaders decide to serve the people below them, they find it fulfills subordinates on a much deeper level, and it gives a purpose-centered experience, resulting in higher performance. Transactional leadership is a managerial leadership style that relies on a quid pro quo relationship of transactions for rewards and punishments to achieve optimal performance from all subordinates. Arguably, transactional leaders are much more common in today’s leadership hierarchy, whereas servant leaders are rarer but have existed for thousands of years.


Emotional intelligence is related to the characteristics of a servant leader. Dr. Reldan S. Nadler authored the tenets of emotional intelligence which are self-awareness (understanding yourself), self-management (managing yourself), social awareness (understanding others) and relationship management (managing others). There are competencies underneath the four tenets of emotional intelligence that can be tied to effective servant leadership.  These include self-confidence, emotional self-awareness, empathy, organizational awareness, emotional self-control, trustworthiness, initiative, influence, inspirational leadership, developing others, building bonds, teamwork and collaboration and communication. If leaders tap into the tenets and competencies of emotional intelligence and apply them, they will find they are on the path towards creating a team bent on transformational results. In other words, leaders who have high emotional intelligence awareness become the most successful servant leaders. There are three examples which prove the servant leadership style above all others is tied to emotional intelligence. 


While there are many examples of servant leadership on display, Abraham Lincoln, General Raymond and General Brown demonstrate the linkage to emotional intelligence. One example of a famous servant leader is Abraham Lincoln. His ideal was a belief in the American people’s resolve to improve oneself. Modeling this ideal, Abraham Lincoln sought the presidency, not for selfish reasons, but because he thought it was the best way to serve Americans to achieve this ideal. During his tenure as president, he also showed numerous emotional intelligence characteristics of a servant leader. Characteristics such as empathy, kindness, compassion and good toward his fellow man. Using these traits and his ideal for the American people, Abraham Lincoln was able to empower a generation of Americans to do what had to be done during the Civil War, Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery. He was able to unite a country at bitter ends against each other while also showing mercy and good will towards his fellow Americans. Abraham Lincoln could have pursued other interests; however, he confronted arguably the worst ill of American society head-on, the institution of slavery, knowing that his worthy cause might split the nation. He decided to show his vulnerability by throwing down the sword to unite a country. Abraham Lincoln created a vision for America to correct the path Americans were on during this time of Civil War and, by his actions, was able to serve the American people by building them back up much like a mentor does to a subordinate when teaching them how to be a better leader. 


More recently, in 2019, General John “Jay” W. Raymond, Chief of Space Operations, showed emotional intelligence traits much like Abraham Lincoln when he stood up the new United States Space Force (USSF). Guardians have been working diligently to meet the needs of the new service. Gen. Raymond has been serving the Guardians from his top position to ensure the successful standup of the new USSF while also working to meet all technological, policy and current and emerging threats the Guardians face. Gen. Raymond is serving the Guardians below him as a servant leader to ensure Guardians and the USSF will be successful in its tactical, operational and strategic missions. To grow the nascent service’s culture to an environment where all Guardians develop, flourish, and continue staying in the USSF for the long haul, will require all leaders at all levels of the USSF to embrace a culture of transformation and change embodied by servant leadership with emotional intelligence.


A final example is from February 25, 2022, at USAFA’s NCLS. A notable quote came from the current Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., when he spoke about the Airmen who fall under his leadership. These Airmen are his subordinates; however, Gen. Brown doesn’t see it that way stating “they don’t work for me. I work for them.”

This and many emotionally driven statements came from this leadership panel, which included Air Force and Space Force senior leaders who spoke on key issues and leadership beliefs. The panel included Gen. Brown, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, CMSgt Joanne S. Bass, the Vice Chief of Space Operations, General David D. Thompson, and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force, CMSgt Roger A. Towberman. 


We need more servant leadership

None of those top leaders said they were servant leaders; however, the characteristics of a servant leader were evident by their leadership beliefs as they raised up fellow Airmen and Guardians. Unfortunately, servant leadership throughout the services is not the norm. Transactional leadership relies on a scale of rewards and punishment to get subordinates to accomplish the mission. Transactional leadership works, but it may not allow for an environment for all servicemen and servicewomen to flourish and develop. On the other hand, servant leadership is rare, but creates the most transformational leadership environment. So, why aren’t more leaders committed to servant leadership? Because it is difficult to be a servant leader. Servant leadership is time-consuming. Transactional leaders must consciously change how they lead. Leaders aren’t presently trained to be servant leaders from the beginning. It takes a specific type of leader steeped in emotional intelligence. With emotional intelligence being so important in leadership, there needs to be more educational opportunities to grow this key skill. Fortunately, the Air University’s Leadership Development Course (LDC) for Squadron Commanders, at Maxwell AFB Alabama, focuses on developing this unique skillset. The meat of the course teaches rising commanders, senior enlisted and key spouses about emotional intelligence and includes a capstone exercise at the end of the course for students to run through scenarios from different challenging perspectives. It is difficult, but enriching, to grow emotional intelligence skills as leaders. The only issue with this course is the time in which it is offered to officers and enlisted. This course needs to be offered to younger officers and enlisted through many different course offerings such as virtual and in-residency to be able to reach all Guardians. The different digital and in-person offerings will allow many servant leadership with emotional intelligence courses to reach most Guardians in their homes or on TDY to build up this vital skillset. This will also allow for cost savings by adding virtual options for Guardians to be able to experience these courses from inside their homes while teleworking. This combination along with more than just one or two emotional intelligence courses offered throughout a career will ensure servant leadership growth with a critical emotional intelligence skillset to create top performers across a whole organization.


Through actions and beliefs, superheroes such as Captain America show what it is like to be a servant leader. However, that’s only entertainment. In reality, servant leaders show their vulnerability while developing those around them to reach their greatest potential. Servant leadership is difficult to learn, can be time-consuming and can be extremely rough given the individual leader's personality. However, embracing a servant leadership style with emotional intelligence tenets and competencies is essential for the culture of the USSF to tap into the needs of Guardians and their values. It will inspire them to build a service with new possibilities, to raise each member’s confidence levels at all levels of the chain of command and will grow a deep-seated conviction to be better. It’s a motivation beyond words for a common goal and it will create a moral compass and a catalyst for transformational change. Servant leadership with emotional intelligence must be embraced to develop a positive growing culture in the USSF. This will allow all Guardians to become empowered and to develop others around them as they continue to progress and get after the mission.