Prioritizing Self-Care as a Fire or EMS Leader

Prioritizing self-care is a matter of focus, and popular leadership methodologies often downplay the importance of “looking out for number one.”

The main difference between traditional leadership and servant leadership is in what’s considered a priority. With traditional leadership, leaders encourage and guide their subordinates with the goal of improving the overall organization. With servant leadership, the main goal is to support and develop the leader’s direct reports, making sure they’re gaining the knowledge and skills they need to be most effective.

Servant leadership, then, isn’t thinking less of yourself—it’s thinking of yourself … less. It’s putting your constituents first in every action and decision. This powerful leadership method isn’t a gimmick or just another book. It’s a fundamental shift in the leader’s attitude and position in relation to the individuals you’re responsible for.

Stewardship is an important part of servant leadership. Stewardship is defined as the careful and responsible management of something or someone entrusted to one’s care. Commitment to the growth of people is also another attribute of servant leaders and servant-leadership-driven organizations.

What we have not yet addressed is you—the leader. Who is ensuring you are receiving what you need? Who is committed to your growth and development? Quis servus serve meus?

In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Dr. Stephen Covey referred to this concept as “sharpening the saw.” Dr. Covey stated this was the “habit that surrounded all the others” as it provided rejuvenation for the leader. Unfortunately, many people who are instinctively servant leaders aren’t particularly adept at prioritizing self-care. These individuals see any deviation from serving others as a distraction, even if it is detrimental to themselves.

Leadership is a sacred trust. We are entrusted to provide an environment where both organizations and individuals will achieve their goals.

There are 4 areas that Dr. Covey described as “sharpening the saw”:


This is likely where leaders in emergency services fail most frequently. Rest, exercise, proper nutrition, and stress management are key to taking care of your physical needs. You cannot expect to give your best to others if you have worn down your physical self. Most leaders are unbelievably bad at this and need outside help to improve. To be honest, though, it doesn’t require a lot of your time, though it may require you to shift your schedule around a bit. I start my day at the gym at 5 am. An hour of cardio brings clarity. I’m much better at exercising regularly than proper nutrition, but that is also an important area of concern. A little planning of your time—at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise three times per week along with some better nutrition choices will have long-term payoffs.


This one can be a challenge, as it’s more complex to define than the other areas. There is, unfortunately, no “emotional gym” you can join to develop this dimension of your health. Instead, you’ll need to work on it constantly during your daily interactions with others. Pay attention to your feelings of empathy and how you relate to others in conflict and harmony, at work and at home, in times of ease and times of crisis. As you improve your emotional intelligence, practice another of Covey’s habits: seeking to understand others before trying to make others understand you. As you improve your social/emotional health, you’ll receive refreshment as you develop your ability to interact with others in healthy ways.


Develop your mind. Read! Read articles, books—things that uplift, educate and inform. Fiction novels are a nice distraction and much better for your mind than television and movies. Television and movies can be relaxing — particularly when enjoyed with others — but they make a poor master. Don’t allow these things to dominate your leisure time to the exclusion of growth activities. Continuing education is important. It can take the form of self-help books, formal classes, trade education, or even learning a new hobby or sport. Keep your brain engaged and it will serve you well!


This is deeply personal. Whatever activity brings you internal peace, whatever helps you clarify and commit to your value system, whatever renews you, seek it out. Spiritual renewal takes time. Whatever you choose to define and commit your life toward, having clarity and focus will renew you. Some people use prayer, some use meditation, some music. A personal mission statement of what you believe and who you want to become can help provide focus and guidance. It will allow you to clarify your center and purpose and recommit to it as needed.

Regardless of your personal leadership style, prioritizing self-care should be a part of your daily focus. Leadership is a sacred trust. We are entrusted to provide an environment where both organizations and individuals will achieve their goals. Servant leaders do this with a mindful consideration of the individuals involved and how these objectives are achieved. You cannot fill another’s bucket if your own bucket is empty. Invest the time in yourself that you would invest in your constituents so everyone in your organization can find balance and success.


Scott Arthur

Scott Arthur has worked in the EMS and fire industries for 20 years as a paramedic and later as a director and senior director of operations. He currently works as a CareerCert instructor and as a business consultant helping organizations improve their safety and team leadership skills. Scott has a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. As an educator, Scott has presented at EMS conferences across the nation and enjoys connecting with first responders to improve department outcomes.

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