Servant leadership: Nurturing excellence in, out of courtroom

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Duncan McElroy
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
"Son, if you want to go to college, it's going to be through either academics or athletics, and you're kind of small for sports - so you better hit the books."

The friendly country twang and honest words from Shane Heavener's father in 1982 helped push him to study and earn a scholarship to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Arkansas, he explained in his homey-feeling office at the 81st Training Wing Legal office. Heavener has that country gentleman vibe about him; even if he's busy he'll invite you into his office to sit down, relax and ask you about your day.

For Lt. Col. Shane Heavener, 81st Training Wing staff judge advocate, his upbringing gave him an appreciation for hard work and set him up for the next chapter of his life in the military.

"My father was very matter-of-fact when I was growing up, but he's the total opposite of that with my daughter nowadays," he said with a chuckle. "He, my mom and my grandparents always wanted to push me; they wanted me to have a better life than they did.

"Pop wasn't afraid to push me . . . he knew it was for the best."

Heavener's father worked in the textile industry, which meant they went to where the work demanded.

Moving seven times in the first five years of his life, the Heavener family finally settled in the small town of Ferndale, Arkansas. The small town upbringing and blue-collar attitude helped shape Heavener into the man he is today. Motivated and optimistic, he was always keeping a lookout for other ways to take the next step, he explained.

"I don't want to say I had a chip on my shoulder, but seeing all those kids in college with money who didn't have to work kind of bothered me," he said. "Seeing them made me work harder, and gave me a greater appreciation for where I came from and all my family did for me."

Heavener liked the idea of serving in the military while still getting his education. So he joined the Army National Guard in 1991, starting his military journey as a private first class.

A couple years after taking that first step of joining the Guard, Heavener earned his degree and made sergeant as a helicopter mechanic.

Becoming a noncommissioned officer wasn't enough for him, though. It was time to pursue bigger and better things. He decided to put his name in the hat to become a warrant officer.

In addition to applying for warrant officer school, Heavener's interests started to lean toward  law school.

"I took a criminal justice class my first year of college," Heavener said. "It all seemed so glamorous to me; I think it may have been because of all the TV shows and movies I saw about it. I think that's where I started to fall in love with law. I even interviewed with the FBI in the early 90s. They told me to work for them I had to become a certified public accountant or get a law degree.

Wide-eyed and shaking his head like he was recalling a bad memory, he said with a small laugh, "So I took an accounting class next semester, and that was the last one I ever took. . .  law school it was."

While attending the University of Arkansas Law School, Heavener completed warrant officer school, attended flight school, maintained his flying hours and moved from an attack unit to an air assault unit.

"Testing for the bar exam was tough, really tough," he said with a sigh. "My unit let me have three months off to study, but I still had to maintain my flight hours. So, my buddy and I would take that three hour drive to base as an opportunity for uninterrupted study time with flash cards. We were doing our flying at night, but I think it was a great experience, really. You've got to work with what you've got."

Once he passed the bar, Heavener decided to try his hand at practicing law as a civilian, while still being a member of his Guard unit.

"In 1998, I finished law school and started prosecuting in the civilian sector," he remembered. "Over the next few years, I got the feeling I wanted to try practicing law in the military though."

Heavener weighed the options of practicing law in the Army or the Air Force. The biggest factor was the way the two branches practice law. Army attorneys generally specialize in one type of law, while the Air Force would allow him a greater variety of experiences, he explained.

When Sept. 11, 2001 happened, he thought he might need to deploy with his guard unit and asked for his Air Force application to be put on hold. Heavener ended up commissioning into the Air Force, and later deployed to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan in 2005 to provide counsel to base leaders.

Joining the Air Force JAG Corps would prove to be the right decision for Heavener, as it allowed him to focus on the two loves of his life, practicing law and spending time with his family.

Heavener's unique journey through the rank structure and varied experiences practicing law - including working as a civilian criminal prosecutor and advising senior Air Force leaders has given him insight on how to lead Airmen.

"I think his greatest strength as a leader is his earnestness and desire to learn and grow," said Maj. Benjamin Martin, 81st Training Wing deputy staff judge advocate. Heavener's time as an enlisted man in the Army helped shape the way he leads, and having that experience has proven to be especially helpful with Keesler's training mission."

"We're the last opportunity for our Airmen to learn about Airmanship, foundational leadership and core values before they hit operational status," Heavener said. "Realizing how we're the gateway for the Air Force and taking the time to show these young Airmen what they bring to the fight is so important.

"We have to set the example here," he continued. "Keesler is really where we get to instill these foundational values and skills in our Airmen."

Some of his duties at Keesler include advising the wing commander and helping draft policies to maintain good order and discipline, while also making sure his office runs smoothly.

Heavener has an open-door policy, and he thinks it's been a benefit to the office. Being approachable to his troops is important to him.

"He's got a real sense for the sensitive," Martin commented. "He knows how things work, and has this 'spidey-sense' that tingles and allows him to recognize issues."

"The power of attitude is a force multiplier," Heavener explained.

Taking cues from his father, Heavener realizes there are similarities, differences and a balance between being a leader and a father. Sometimes the roles are separate; sometimes the lines are a bit more blurred.

"I believe there's great potential for crossover between the two roles, where you can just bark orders or be too involved in other peoples' work, and the same goes for being overbearing with a child," Heavener described. "Finding the right balance and structure to let your troops or your children flourish makes a difference. It's about empowerment."

"Giving others opportunities to take leadership roles is something we've been doing really well," Heavener continued. "Letting my troops grow and ensuring engagement between enlisted, officers and civilians allows the team to develop."

At his core, Heavener is a family man. Whether he's mentoring a lieutenant or listening to his daughter read to him at the end of a long day, his focus is taking care of the people around him, plain and simple.

"He tries every single day to improve himself and those around him," Martin said confidently.

Though he may be tired from a long day of work, Heavener's pursuit to improve those he cares about doesn't end at the office.

"My daughter is 6-years-old, and she's been reading a lot lately," he said with the proud smile and glint in his eyes like only a loving father can have. "Whenever I get home early enough, she always reads to me before her bedtime."

Being a good leader isn't always reserved for work. Sometimes that means being a father, too.

And with that, Heavener left his office for an hour to watch his daughter's honor roll ceremony.