How to Modify the Military Value of 'Service Before Self' to a Civilian Workplace

Staff Sgt. Patrick Williams, member of the 179th Airlift Wing Force Support Squadron, serves as a police officer for the Mansfield, Ohio, Police Department. He helped to establish a program that enabled the Mansfield Police Department to read to kindergarten classes throughout the school year. (Airman Alexis Wade/U.S. Air National Guard photo)

In the many years I've taught personal branding for the military-to-civilian transition and coached, mentored and written about reintegration for active-duty service members and veterans, one value of the military has struck a chord with me: "Service Before Self."

Commonly known as an Air Force core value, many service members from other branches also adhere to the same qualities of this honorable commitment.

It's been explained that "Service Before Self" means you put others ahead of yourself, prioritizing their safety, well-being and character ahead of yours, and you don't seek recognition or praise for the outcome of situations where you lead and serve. You take accountability and responsibility for those, but the service is to be completely other-focused.

What an admirable value to instill where risks are high, consequences are dire and change is imminent.

But what happens when you leave the military culture and enter the private sector? Whether you pursue entrepreneurship, education (as a student veteran) or employment, in this environment, you'll be working alongside civilians who've learned to operate, lead and add value in a more self-focused culture.

That's not to say you won't find civilians who believe in servant leadership, who put their own needs and goals secondary to those of their teams and colleagues, but the narrative is different.

In building your post-military career, I'd like to offer an idea for how to modify the military value of "Service Before Self" to keep the integrity of what you committed to and allow you to thrive in your new career: Reframe your narrative and value as "Service Through Self."

Many of you leave the military with a strong desire to continue serving. The individuals, communities or causes you want to advance, protect and serve might look different, and there may even be some personal motivation and goals mixed in with your service.

In that case, serving through yourself, as yourself and in line with what you stand for becomes a natural extension of how you served your country.

To grow your "Service Through Self," consider:

Saying "Yes" to More Than You Say "No"

Are you turning down opportunities, relationships and experiences because they're unfamiliar and uncomfortable? Assuming they are legal and safe, consider stretching your capacity to serve others by leaning into more of the unknown and seeing what you learn about yourself, your ability to lead and the value of your service to the people around you.

Asking More Questions

While leadership might look like having the knowledge and confidence for others to want to follow, some of the greatest leaders I've known learned more about what's needed and how to best serve by asking questions and withholding judgment.

Broadening Your Perspective

Consider how disparate and diverse your relationships and communities are now. In the military, you learned to work alongside colleagues from different cultures and countries. Now you'll be leading individuals with different views, perspectives, ambitions and goals.

Their ideals may not align with yours. Their goals might conflict with yours. Instead of fighting it, ask yourself what you might learn from them.

Taking Care of Yourself

Few leaders can sustain their service if they run out of energy, risk their own health or sacrifice their well-being. Taking care of yourself means you are able to serve others.

However and whomever you'll serve in your post-military life, remember that now it is about you -- your values, your vision, your ability to lead others toward something better. You don't give up your talents, capacity and ability to serve when you take off the uniform.

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