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Commentary: Serve Like a Champion Today

LOS ANGELES AIR FORCE BASE, Calif -- If you didn't know, I happen to be a rabid Notre Dame Irish football fan.  I've spent many Saturdays huddled around the television cheering my Irish to victory.  The winning tradition that I've grown accustomed to over the past 40 years has changed quite a bit.  The wins are a little less frequent and the championships...well, quite frankly...non-existent.  However, the one thing that stays a constant with Notre Dame Irish football is a wooden sign.

It's a simple wooden sign, painted blue and gold, mounted on a brick wall at the bottom of a stairwell in the home team's locker room with the words, "Play Like a Champion Today."  While the exact origin of the slogan is unknown, the sign came courtesy of former coach Lou Holtz.

Holtz, a great believer in motivational tools, spoke to his team at various times about what being a champion means.  "The word `champion' means you're the best - the very definition of it." says Holtz. "You're a bar above the rest. When you play that way, you're going to be the best and if you give your best that's all you can ask of a person."

Soon, the tradition of hitting the sign on their way down the stairs to the gridiron before every game developed.

However, to Holtz, hitting the sign also came with a solemn commitment:

"Regardless of the win-loss record, regardless of the problems you have, when you walk out on that field you have an obligation to your teammates and the fans to play to the best of your ability - to play like a champion and to think like a champion.  But, I also asked my players that every time they hit that sign, to think about all the sacrifices your family has made; your teammates made in high school; the sacrifices your teachers have made; and you also think of the thousands of people who would love to be in your position. Just think about how fortunate we are.  All of these thoughts should go through your mind when you hit that sign - `Play Like a Champion Today'."

Now, you're probably wondering why you should care about Lou Holtz, Notre Dame Irish football, or better yet an old wooden sign with a slogan on it.  Quite honestly, I'm fully aware that I won't be able to convince each of you to jump on the Notre Dame Irish football band wagon (though I promise to make room for each of you), but what I do hope is that I can convince each of you to see how a college football slogan, when applied to our lives, can not only make us all more effective Air Force leaders, but also more effective leaders in life.

For starters let's merely interchange a single word..."Serve" for "Play".  Our new life slogan will be "Serve Like a Champion Today." Are you ready to make a solemn commitment to serve?

The word serve shouldn't come to anyone as a big surprise as it has been part of our Air Force heritage for years.  We all joined the "service".   Many people refer to us as "service members."  One of our core values is "Service before Self".  But what is truly meant to commit to serve?

Making a commitment to serve shouldn't be taken lightly.  To serve is the "act(s) of extending yourself for others by identifying and meeting their legitimate needs and seeking their greatest good."  This comes with a personal price as we must sacrifice many times our own priorities, wants, needs, desires and time.  However, I'd challenge anyone wanting to be a leader that they must first be a servant.  If you choose to lead, you must serve.  If you truly commit yourself to servant leadership you won't find a more fulfilling path in life.

A question I always get is "But how do I know if I'm an effective servant leader?" Here I hope to provide you a simple tool that will be helpful as you serve/lead throughout your life.

One process that has proven extremely helpful in my career is what I call my post-day analysis.  It starts with a short list of questions that I ask myself at the end of each day to gauge how I served, not only my Airmen (military, civilian, contractors), but everyone that I encountered.  I use this analysis to identify where I did great and where I can do better to determine how I can be a stronger servant leader.  The beauty of it all is that with each day comes a new beginning.  I get to learn from my previous days, reaffirm my commitment to serve, and inevitably take another step towards being a "Champion" servant leader.

Here is a short list of questions I ask myself at the end of each day to prepare me for the new beginning that comes with each sunrise.  Keep in mind this list is personalized; feel free to add or subtract as necessary as you develop your own "Post-Day" analysis.

Before I lay my head on my pillow at night, I answer the following questions:

-- Did I walk-the-walk and not just talk-the-talk when it comes to our AF core values, standards and commitment to serve?

-- Did I honor/respect the partnership between leader and team member?

-- Did I put my people first and myself last?

-- Did I take the time to STOP and listen...to show care to all people?

-- Did I respect those around me enough to provide answers to their important questions (closing concern-loops)?

Of course, my post-day analysis results vary from day-to-day and week-to-week, as will yours.  Some days I do better than others, but as I stated earlier this post-day analysis is not to be used to break your spirit, but as a tool to reinvent yourself daily.  
I challenge each of you to approach each day to be a champion and that you expect the same out of your personnel.  To do your very best.  Raise the bar of service higher and higher every single day.  Each of us needs to create a culture that exudes the mindset of a "Champion".  When you lay your head on the pillow each night will you be able to say you gave 100 percent and served like a champion today? (Hmmm...sounds like something Coach Lou Holtz would say)

Are you ready to hit our "Serve Like A Champion Today" sign?

Like Notre Dame's football team hitting their sign before a game, you should understand the responsibility that comes with hitting (figuratively/literally) our "Serve Like A Champion Today" sign before the start of every day. 

Regardless of the personal problems in our lives we have an obligation to our fellow airmen and the citizens of America to serve to the best of our ability - to serve like a champion and to think like a champion.  Each morning when we commit to "Serve Like A Champion Today" we need to think about the sacrifices our families have made, the service members who've paid the ultimate sacrifice for freedom and also the thousands of people who would give anything to be in our position - to serve the greatest country on the planet.

All of these thoughts of "Service", what it means to be a "Champion" should go through your mind when you reaffirm your commitment each morning and hit that sign.