Servant Leadership? But I am the Boss!

By Reginald D. Freeman
Remember, if they won’t follow you in the firehouse kitchen, chances are they won’t follow you on the fireground. (Wayne Barrall photo)

We study tirelessly to pass the written examination, condition our bodies to successfully pass the physical agility test, and research common interview questions that are asked for entry level firefighter positions to prepare ourselves for the interview with the chief or interview panel. After all of that hard work, your dream is realized and you share the great news with your friends and family. You are a firefighter. Press fast forward, and you are at it again--studying for promotional examinations. You ascend up the organizational ladder to the rank of an officer and now you have the responsibility of making sure that those under your command go home at the end of their shift. You are now charged with motivating, inspiring, and leading by example to others who are in a position that you were once in.

Today’s workforce is comprised of three different generations, which have different values and perspectives on life in general and work expectations. The demands of dynamic leadership have never been greater for leaders in today’s fire service. If the men and women under your command, as well as your fellow officers, participated in a 360-degree survey about you as a leader and manager, what would they say? Would they say that you are inclusive? A coach? A mentor and transparent? Or would they say that you are a self-centered dictator? As a student of leadership, I quickly gravitated toward “servant leadership” and its principles that have become more and more popular over the past few years.

Servant leadership was first introduced by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay that he wrote in 1970. It is a faith-based leadership philosophy that inherently turns the organization chart upside down. Greenleaf defined servant leadership as “someone in a position of authority adopting the mindset that the servant-leader is servant first …. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”

As a fire service officer, you may be saying to yourself, “Servant leadership? But I am the boss!” You are correct. You are the boss, and your legitimate authority, which is extended through the office of the chief, already establishes that. However, if you need to remind people that you are the boss, then you don’t have true followership and you’re not exercising healthy leadership principles. Your duty as an officer is to embody the organizational statements and uphold your oath of office. How do you motivate and inspire others to accomplish tasks? How do you demonstrate to those under your command that they are valued and their voice matters?

How to Start Practicing Today

Practicing servant leadership is a conscious decision that is motivated by the desire to have your team function at the highest possible level. It is committing to your team that “we” is much more important than “me” as a leader. Let’s take a look at some servant leadership characteristics that you can start practicing today to make you a more effective leader:

1)      Lead from the front but know when to follow. A common mistake that we make in the fire service is marginalizing the voice and capabilities of junior ranking members of the team. Everyone on the team has value and brings something unique to the table. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be there. Leverage the strengths of every member of the team and allow them to have learning experiences. Mistakes are only made if the teachable moment that occurred is not embraced and discussed.

2)      Don’t just say that you care; show it. Demonstrating empathy when leading service-based organizations goes hand in hand with making sure that you wear an SCBA when engaged in interior fire suppression tasks. It’s Tuesday evening, you have had “back to back” calls all day, and it is the day to deep clean the kitchen. Instead of going up to your office and starting your incident reports, pick up a rag and cleaning solution and help the members of your company. They may not immediately voice their appreciation for your efforts, but I assure you that it doesn’t go unnoticed. Five minutes of “doing what you say to do” can have an indefinite impact on future followership.

3)      Have a heighten sense of awareness. Your ability to anticipate problems before they become a crisis is critically important as an officer. To take care of your personnel, you must first know and understand them. Be clear and consistent with your communication as it pertains to your company. This is directly correlated with them knowing you and your expectations. If you are at a busy house and vertical ventilation is scheduled for proficiency training, it is not only okay but expected that you report up through the chain of command that you would like to complete the training during the next shift because your personnel are spent. It defeats the purpose of training if everyone is not paying attention and engaging in back and forth dialogue. It also shows that you know your personnel and care about their disposition. Take advantage of those opportunities when you can. Have a heighten sense of awareness involving all things.

The autocratic style of leadership is dead in today’s fire service with the exception of the fireground or the mitigation of an emergency. A fire service servant-leader focuses on the development and welfare of the firefighters. While typical leadership encompasses the amassing and application of “power” by the leader at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is distinctly different. A fire service servant-leader is inclusive and shares the decision making authority, putting the needs of others first and helping firefighters progress and execute their duties and responsibilities to the highest possible level. Remember, if they won’t follow you in the firehouse kitchen, chances are they won’t follow you on the fireground.


Reginald D. Freeman is chief/emergency management director for the City of Hartford. Prior to that, he was the international fire chief for Lockheed Martin and civilian fire chief in Iraq for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2004-2008. He has a bachelor of arts in leadership from Bellevue University and a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University and is pursuing his doctorate in organizational leadership.