Servant Leadership in Today’s Fire Service

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A look at Robert K. Greenleaf’s The Servant as Leader

Fire service leadership has existed since the introduction of the first organized fire brigades of ancient Rome. Over the centuries, leadership has morphed into the traditional styles we recognize today: laissez-faire, autocratic, democratic, and bureaucratic. Fire service leaders have either succeeded or failed employing one or a combination of these styles. But given the fact that the fire service at its core is just that, a “service,” a new leadership style has emerged—servant leadership. It’s new in that it has been recently named, but it is long standing in its practice.

Fire service management lacks an understanding of the impact of truly serving those who have traditionally served them. Servant leadership, the philosophy that management supports labor, has the ability to change the way fire departments are run. The theory inverts the traditional pyramid of management, where lower-level members support those in upper positions. In a servant leadership pyramid, the chief of the department is at the bottom of the pyramid, with his subordinates forming the remaining “upper” levels.

The History of Servant Leadership

The concept of servant leadership is not new. As a matter of fact, it has references dating back to China in the sixth century BC, where it was written by Lao Tzu, “The greatest leader forgets himself and attends to the development of others.” History has produced a plethora of servant leaders, with names as familiar as Lincoln, King, and Mandela. Others are more obscure, like Knox and Ladouceur. Religion is riddled with examples of servant leaders, but the American fire service has only dabbled in true servant leadership, with sporadic examples scattered throughout its 280-plus-year existence.

Most servant leaders in the fire service do not label themselves as such. Many who are considered servant leaders may be practicing the tenets of servant leadership subconsciously, not truly knowing the impact of their leadership style. It is these men and women who truly have the interests of their troops and the department at the heart of their decision-making process. In return for their efforts, a better product is delivered in the way of a working environment where the lowest levels of the department are empowered and supported. The community that the fire department protects is the ultimate recipient of a more efficient and effective service, one that understands it exists for more than fire protection; it exists to support the community in any way possible.

The term “servant leadership” was first coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in a 1970 essay entitled “The Servant as Leader.” It is in this essay where the premise of the servant leader being a servant first is introduced. The essay expands to introduce the idea that the servant leader takes great care to make sure that other people’s highest-priority needs are being served. It further expands to ask if those who are being served grow as people. Do those being served “become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” That is where the tie to the fire service becomes readily apparent. All officers who lead should desire their crews to grow in this way. They should strive to ensure these characteristics are at the very foundation of each of their subordinates’ professional development.

Greenleaf also states in this original essay the importance of servant leaders being cognizant of the effects their leadership will have on “the least privileged in society.” He asks, “Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?“ This again ties directly to the delivery of the fire service’s mission. Fire department leaders should accept nothing less than the absolute guarantee that the delivery of their service is the same for the homeless person as it is for the millionaire. Anything less tarnishes the department’s mission and plants seeds of distrust in the minds of the citizenry it serves.

Fire Service Leadership

Servant leadership is applicable to anyone who oversees at least one subordinate. Its applicability is widespread because of the paramilitary nature of the fire service. Beginning with the first-line supervisors, leadership qualities become vital because individuals oversee multiple people as opposed to just themselves. The nature of servant leadership also lends itself to all remaining leadership levels because of the inherent nature of individuals leading and managing groups of people. So, while anyone could take something away from the practices of servant leadership, the higher the rank, the greater the ability to serve; chief officers can gain just as much, if not more, as company officers from the practice of servant leader traits.

Servant leadership is represented with the traditional pyramid inverted and management supporting the “boots on the ground.” (Image by author.)

Servant leadership is represented with the traditional pyramid inverted and management supporting the “boots on the ground.” (Image by author.)

The relevance to officers is paramount in that when they became officers, most likely, the traditional upright pyramid model of management was the accepted norm. Their management and leadership qualities and styles were borne from same. These individuals could act as agents of change and could introduce this new philosophy to their departments. By so doing, their departments could reap the benefits of servant leadership: increased morale and departmental productivity, tactical efficiency, and a greater sense of ownership. New and possibly ground-breaking theories have the potential to help departments run more efficiently. As the focus is redirected, subordinates will begin to experience a greater buy-in to the mission of the department. Subsequently, work performance, creativity, and efficiency will increase synergistically.

Larry Spears identified 10 characteristic of servant leaders in the writings of Greenleaf. Those characteristics are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. This may not be the exact list you were introduced to in your Fire Officer I textbook, but each can play an incredibly important role in the leadership of firefighters. When employed as a group, adopted as a meaningful philosophy, and executed as a leadership ethos, the end product will be far superior to one that is driven by self-preservation.

Overcoming Self-Preservation

Those who desire to practice servant leadership will have to overcome their natural instincts of self-preservation. This is difficult for many, as the hiring process to get on the department as well as the multitude of promotional processes encountered as you work your way through the ranks are all competitions, all derived and predicated on self-preservation. But once the philosophy is adopted and begins to bear fruit, the servant leader will see enhanced performance by his crew as well as increased morale, dedication, and job satisfaction. Those who are led will begin to see their leader truly as a servant, one who has the interests of the crew ahead of his own.

In today’s fire service, many company and chief officers have stated that the needs of the crew come before their own needs, but often this is essentially lip service. The actions of these leaders produce a different result than that which is spoken and many times desired. One must sincerely believe and then through action put the needs of the crew above his own if the servant leadership mantra is to produce the desired results. One must adopt as his personal ethos that his own needs will always be second to those he leads, that the needs of the many far outweigh the needs of the one. This supports the idea of servant leadership where the traditional pyramid is inverted and management is supporting the “boots on the ground.” A company officer must be committed to this belief; otherwise, he will make decisions based on his own needs and not the needs of the people he leads. A chief officer must be committed to this as well but at a higher level of functionality.

The Needs of the Crew

While this is not an example of the tail wagging the dog, the dividends realized by taking the needs of the crew into consideration will create buy-in among the group and furnish them with a sense of belonging and ownership. A crew that feels their needs are being addressed will perform at a higher level than one that feels their leader is only thinking of himself. In essence, the most valuable outcome is increased trust between the crew and the officer, between those who lead and those who are led. That trust is displayed every shift by increased ownership: crew members fixing things they didn’t break, picking up trash that isn’t theirs, and finishing jobs left by the previous shift because they got dispatched to a late call for service. A crew that is led by a servant leader will inevitably outperform other crews, will not be dissuaded by the setting of a higher bar, and will display a greater trust in their superior officer. These performance characteristics alone will drive an internal departmental mechanism that will ensure delivery of the mission is accomplished in ways the very authors of the mission statement envisioned. Most mission statements are about groups and not individuals. Most are about selflessness and not selfishness. It is here that the tenets of servant leadership can be expanded to the departmental level and realize gains never before imagined.

Servant leadership has the incredible potential to go beyond individual practice and lend itself to the organization (fire department) as well. Greenleaf penned a follow-up essay in 1972 entitled, “The Institution as Servant.” He speaks of three specific types of institutions, ones in which he has experience: churches, universities, and businesses. It has many times been stated that fire departments should be managed as businesses, and there is a belief that the business can be a servant. It is therefore not too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that, if he were a firefighter, Greenleaf would have written an essay entitled “The Fire Department as Servant.”

Above and Beyond

Fire departments as a whole, as established entities, have traditionally had much difficulty adapting to change. The saying “200 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress” sounds out that difficulty with unwavering clarity. Yet change is truly the only constant in the universe, and those departments that choose to not ride the waves of change will certainly find themselves beneath them. The concept of “fire department as servant” is not that radical of a philosophy, as our complete existence is built on a foundation of service. The traditional service-oriented philosophy was for many years understood to be defined as “service for others,” primarily the public or the community. Once fire departments began to understand and adopt business models referencing “internal” and “external” customers, the servant leadership model should have naturally followed. For some fire departments it did; for others, the change agent has yet to make its introduction.

If a fire department desires to be exceptional, to truly set itself apart from other municipal entities and fire departments, the endeavor will have to be a team effort. The determination to be great and the desire to deliver the best standard of quality must resonate throughout the entire department. The vision of the department will be set forth by the chief, but the chief officers and, particularly, the company officers, along with the chief, will have to understand and embrace their individual servant leadership roles as they relate to the idea of a servant fire department. The policymakers will have to determine what needs exist for the department’s members to be successful. They will have to uncover, in the most basic of terms and on the simplest of levels, what the members of the department need to deliver on the department’s mission.

This will not be a simple undertaking. This desired change in the attitude and performance of the department will not happen overnight. This will be a laborious task, one that will require time to take root and steadfast dedication to the principles of servant leadership at every level. Opposition will be strong, as change introduces uncertainty and a feeling of uneasiness. But change is usually only difficult for those who were not a part of the planning of the change. If servant leaders truly know what needs exist at the departmental level as well as the individual level, that should have been determined through interaction with those whom they lead. The lowest levels of the department, which are truly the highest levels according to the inverted pyramid, will know that their leaders and their department care about them and their needs. They will know their voices are heard, because their leaders are servants first. That will make all the difference.

By James L. Jester

James L. Jester is a career captain/acting assistant chief with the Salisbury (MD) Fire Department and a volunteer assistant chief with the Ocean City (MD) Fire Department. He is an instructor for the Maryland Fire & Rescue Institute, specializing in firefighter survival & rescue and the rescue technician disciplines. Jester writes a monthly training newsletter for his career department and is a special operations team leader. He has been published in numerous periodicals in his hometown of Ocean City and has lectured extensively for the Maryland State Firemen’s Association.

Pennwell