A Quest to Find the Meaning of Servant Leadership

Jordan Barth

A Greyshirt reflects on self discoveries made during a deployment to the Navajo Nation in 2023.

What does it mean to serve others?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer, and one I wrestled with after accepting the offer to serve as Planning Section Chief for Operation Diné Calling, Team Rubicon’s operation at the Navajo Nation assisting tribal recovery efforts for severe winter storms and flooding in January of 2023. In fact, it’s a question that I’ve been asking myself for the last couple of years while serving on operations across the U.S., from Hammond, LA, to Harlingen, TX; from Charlotte, NC, to Chinle, AZ. 

I thought I had found the answer upon listening intently to our operation in-briefing: Service means placing others’ needs before your own. As a member of command and general staff—C&G—we do this daily, if not hourly. We ensure those who spent the day in the field eat first, and we wait until all have filled their plates before filling our own.

Through proper inventorying and working with strike team leaders, we ensure teams have their trucks loaded with required and make-shift supplies needed to carry out their work orders for that day. We make sure that work assignments for the following day are posted on the information board by the time teams arrive back at base. 

Thinking more individually, I served by spending much of my day ensuring Greyshirts who went into the field did so with a plan and safely. A Planning Section Chief is charged with ensuring the integrity of all operational documents, managing meetings that developed the plan for the following day, and ensuring each Greyshirt who serves on the operation is accounted for. That is a form of service. While not the glamorous work of removing insulation from under a home, shoveling sand that accumulated from flooding, or operating a chainsaw to remove brush from causing future flooding, it is certainly necessary to ensure the success of Team Rubicon’s effort. 

Upon discovering this answer, I was almost congratulating myself—like I had won some sort of prize, as if serving the Diné was some sort of individual game or competition. About midway through the week, I made a startling realization: I was missing the bigger picture. There was far more to service, and I was missing it, thanks in part to my hubris. 

Service is not a single action: it is a behavior—a pattern of behavior. Serving in Chinle, it was not about me and my experience; it was about supporting the experiences of others, whether they be Greyshirts, community members, or community leaders. 

Service is about listening more and talking less. 

Early in the week, our Incident Commander arranged for everyone to visit the Canyon de Chelly National Monument. During our visit, National Park Service staff and community members described the impact of “The Long Walk” on the Diné people. In our nation’s quest for westward expansion in the 1860s, the U.S. military had burned villages, slaughtered livestock, and destroyed water sources to starve and force the Diné to surrender their claim to the place and land. Thousands of Diné eventually did and were forced to walk hundreds of miles to an internment-like camp. The walk killed hundreds and sickened thousands. Once in these camps, the Diné were forced to adopt white American cultural values, though many successfully resisted until they were allowed to return to their homelands. Upon their return, the Diné found their homelands in complete ruin and were forced to start over.

Storytelling and tradition are large components of Diné culture and are often passed down from generation to generation. After listening to and internalizing this story, I was left inspired by the incredible resiliency and kindness of the Diné people in the face of incredible injustice and trauma. 

Representatives from the Chinle chapter could have shunned our help, given the makeup of our organization and previous government experience by many who wear a grey shirt, yet they didn’t. We were consistently thanked and shown a warmness that I didn’t expect. They provided us with their Chapter House, one of their most treasured buildings and a place where they deliberate to better the community, for our weeks-long use as the FOB. The symbolism was not lost on me. 

In the days I spent in service, much of it working in their Chapter House, I realized that service is about supporting Greyshirts who answered the call and stepped into the arena to assist the Chinle chapter. Not just supporting them with physical stuff but supporting their emotional needs as well. A good Incident Commander once told me, “We do hard work and heart work.” The work we do impacts us all differently. Closing my computer screen for a couple of minutes each afternoon was often super revealing. Watching and listening to Greyshirts return from the field with stories, filling our temporary home with laughter and fellowship, brought me joy. However, it was also an opportunity to see who needed some additional support processing their emotions from the day. 

Jackie Burbank, President of the Diné Warriors Group, presents Greyshirt Norm Corson with a thank you for TR’s engagement in the Navajo Nation and Chinle Chapter. Photo by Jordan Barth.

Service is about upholding and even strengthening the unlikely-but-special relationship between Team Rubicon and the people we serve, in this case, the Navajo Nation. Stemming from one of our nation’s darkest hours and times of need—the COVID pandemic—Team Rubicon has become a partner to the Navajo Nation: From April 2020 through December of ’21, Team Rubicon deployed hundreds of Greyshirts to the Navajo Nation, where they served more than 5,000 patients and assisted in distributing more than 12,400 vaccines. Service here now—and also in the days to come, long-after COVID—will help Team Rubicon fulfill its own promise to the Navajo. 

My “why” that week was plain and simple; to serve others. To serve according to Team Rubicon’s service principles with tenacity, impartiality, accountability, collaboration, and innovation. My why in the future will be to show and empower other Greyshirts how they can best serve.

Watch: A Promise to the Navajo | A Team Rubicon Original

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