Servant Leadership in Public Safety: A Balancing Act

by | January 22, 2024

Servant leadership is certainly not a new concept. For decades, people across industries have lauded the importance of servant leadership, calling for everyone in every position to be a servant leader. But what does it actually look like? And more importantly for you, what does it look like in public safety?

Public safety leaders set the tone and culture of their agency and make decisions that often have life or death implications—for community members and for personnel. True servant leadership in public safety requires finding an appropriate balance: the balance between being in control and empowering your people; taking care of your people, your agency and your responsibilities and caring for yourself; and leading effectively while preparing the next generation for leadership.

In a recent webinar, “6 Leadership ‘Watchouts’ for Public Safety Leaders,” Battalion Chief Bruce Bjorge and Police Chief (Ret.) Dave Funkhouser discuss six key areas public safety leaders should look out for that can keep them (and their agencies) from success, or that, when done well, can help them lead the way and develop strong leaders for generations to come.

Lost in Leadership

No one will contest that public safety leaders have dozens of competing priorities at any given moment. It can be all too easy to become overwhelmed and lose sight of your greater strategy or long-term plan for your agency. At some point, you have to ask yourself the question: “Does it have to be me that does this?” Do you have to be the one to talk to the media or to give this or that order? Can you train someone else to carry out this task? “We are not irreplaceable,” Bjorge says simply. When you start to feel overwhelmed, having a plan and people who are equipped to execute that plan is the best way to address the problems at hand—whatever they are: “We have to anticipate problems and have systems in place to move the agency forward, limiting the impacts when bad things happen,” Bjorge explains.

A few key questions to consider and help you avoid getting “lost in leadership”: Do you have contingency plans in place if things don’t go your way? Have you identified personnel who can step up to the plate, and have you equipped and empowered them to make decisions and act? Have you identified potential leaders down the chain of command who you can help develop? This is about the reality that you, regardless of your rank, can’t be everywhere and can’t do everything yourself. “I thought I needed to control everything,” Funkhouser says. “But I don’t have to know it all, I don’t have to do it all…I had to humble myself and say, ‘I need help.’”

“Come to your role as a leader from a place of humility to begin with. Acknowledge that you’re human and you’re going to make mistakes.”

The “Service” in Servant Leadership

Consider everyone who contributes to your organization’s mission and the impact they have—not only your personnel, but your community at large. “It should not be me, the leader, bringing the success of the organization,” says Bjorge. “It should be our people.” If it becomes all about you as the leader, you’ll quickly find yourself “outside of the organization looking in,” he explains.

Servant leadership in public safety is often the difference between exerting influence and exerting control. It’s about “listening more than ordering people around, identifying the strengths of people in your organization as opposed to focusing on their weaknesses,” says Funkhouser. You cannot succeed on your own—there are people who can help you do your job and do it better. In fact, to succeed, you have to rely on your people, empowering them to serve the community as you serve them. Get to know your people, listen to their input, and allow them to use their skills and abilities.

Servant leadership starts from a place of humility. “If you have to remind people that you’re the boss, you’re not the boss,” explains Funkhouser. Leading from a place of rank or title is not the way to earn the trust necessary to be an effective leader. On the flip side, earning respect through empowering your people leads to success for every stakeholder. “Come to your role as a leader from a place of humility to begin with,” says Bjorge. “Acknowledge that you’re human and you’re going to make mistakes.”

Being in Control vs. Being Controlling

It’s human nature to desire control, especially as situations start to spiral. When things get overwhelming or hectic, your gut reaction is probably to extend control and move toward micromanagement. “We want to take more control instead of leaning on the team to figure out how to solve the problem,” Bjorge explains. But that isn’t the answer. Funkhouser says, “We need to embrace people, regardless of the title, to find solutions.” As a leader, you can—and should—be in control without personally controlling every detail. When you act with consistency, train your people to adhere to policies and procedures, and empower and trust them to make good decisions, your influence permeates every level of the organization.

View the on-demand webinar, “6 Leadership ‘Watchouts’ for Public Safety Leaders,” to learn more.

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