NOBLESSE OBLIGE: The Original Core Value!

  • Published
  • By Col JD Willis
  • 17th Training Group Commander
The phrase Noblesse Oblige was once a byword for any noble of merit. Translating to "nobility obliges", the words represent the idea that nobility has an obligation to demonstrate impeccable conduct and to protect and serve one's subordinates. The proliferation of democracy has rendered the noble class an anachronism; lords, monarchies and feudal rules are now considered relics of an outdated age. Therefore, what relevance could this phrase have for a world bereft of nobles? To answer that question, one need only look around at the men and women serving in uniform.

Gen. George S. Patton, the WWII-era general known for his bluntness and battlefield acumen, espoused one component of Noblesse Oblige when he stated "you are always on parade." Well acquainted with the scrutiny a professional warrior incurs, General Patton's comment reflects the expectation that one's actions should reflect his or her position. An effective leader must always conduct him or herself in a manner they would like their subordinates to emulate. Adhering to standards, remembering customs and courtesies, and social tact are but a few examples of this concept.

The second component of the phrase is even more important. As a member of the noble class, a lord was expected to put the needs of his subjects before his own. The noble's higher position connoted a greater obligation to those under his care. This is a concept readily apparent to those in the military. Each Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine and Coast Guardsman exemplifies Noblesse Oblige every day they don their uniform and put personal interests aside to serve and defend their nation.

Noblesse Oblige may earn its greatest relevance when considered in terms of seniority within the rank structure. As any good officer or non-commissioned officer can attest, the higher the rank, the greater the obligation to subordinates. An easier way to visualize this is as an inverted pyramid; as a leader is promoted and advances towards the tip, they serve and support an increasingly wider expanse of subordinates. Consideration for the needs and welfare of subordinates should be the top priority when any decisions are made and a failure to take those points into account is conduct unbecoming any worthy leader.

Contrary to how many outsiders view the hierarchical structure of the military, any effective military leader recognizes that those below them in the chain are the same ones that leader is entrusted to serve. Elsewhere in antiquity, the idea of Noblesse Oblige emerges in maxims, such as "To whom much is given, much is required." Likewise, contemporary leadership gurus have given it the label, "servant leadership." All these concepts hinge on the same critical perspective wherein one considers the needs of others as more important than oneself. Indeed, one of the Air Force's core values, "Service Before Self," is practically a synonym for Noblesse Oblige.

Though the times and words have changed, the military's need for professional, effective and selfless leaders remains as important as ever. It is for this reason I encourage each and every professional warrior to remember and faithfully fulfill the sacred responsibility declared through the charge of our noble ancestors: Noblesse Oblige!

(Second Lt. David Zumbach, 315th Training Squadron, contributed to this article.)