Ever since I was a small boy visiting my first firehouse, I always wanted to become a firefighter. I wanted it for the same reasons many in public safety do: to serve the community, help others in need and make a difference in someone’s life. This wasn’t just something I would think about casually; it was something I truly believed. As I spent time in the military, and then returned to the fire service, I was lucky enough to have opportunities to move up in rank and transition from follower to leader.
Leaders come in a multitude of varieties. Some are seasoned veterans with loads of experience; others quickly learn on the fly and promote with little experience. Many of us could have spirited discussions about the pros and cons of different types of leaders and leadership styles. That discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I’ll focus on servant leadership because I find this leadership style keenly effective.
Many firefighters think being promoted means the opportunity to be in charge and get others to do the work: Now I have “people” for that. It’s also common to hear that strong leaders will “lead from the front.” Certainly, many successful fire service leaders have embodied this approach. But the question I always ask is, “Are they following you because you told them to, or because they want to?” There is a difference!
To be a servant leader, in its basic form, means that you put others before yourself. Being a true servant leader isn’t about you, it is about everyone but you.
Early in my career, I was exposed to a great example of servant leadership in the fire service. Many captains I worked with would stay in the office doing paperwork while the rest of the crew cleaned the living quarters, washed the apparatus and performed the other menial work that comes with non-emergency tasks at the firehouse.
Because of this leadership style, his crew fell in line, would follow him anywhere and never wanted to transfer out of that station.
But then I began working with a captain who had a different outlook. Instead of doing other tasks while the rest of us worked, he was working shoulder-to-shoulder with us until the crew’s work was done. There were times when he would even volunteer to give the rookie a break from cleaning the bathrooms. When asked why, he simply answered, “I use this place just like everyone else, so once in a while I need to take my turn, too.” Then, after all the other work was done, this captain would retire to the office to work on the tasks he was required to do for his position.
Because of this leadership style, his crew fell in line, would follow him anywhere and never wanted to transfer out of that station. Why? Because he wasn’t above us, he was one of us.
The U.S. Marine Corps’ tradition that officers eat last is a true expression of being a servant leader. The rationale centers on the fact that a well-fed unit will be strong and can fight well. Officers should want their crews to have everything they need, including food. There is intrinsic value gained when the Marines understand the respect their leadership has for the important role they play.
The same concept can be applied in the firehouse. Officers who embrace servant leadership are generally the last to eat, the last to rest and first to stand up and lead their crew when it’s time to go to work.
So, what kind of a leader are you? Do those who report to you offer respect, follow direction and exhibit highly skilled performance when called upon? If not, why? Perhaps the reason is that you are not setting the proper example of what you expect. Maybe you are not out training with the crew regularly until they reach the level of performance that you, your organization and your community expect. Instead, change the situation and show them how you expect them to perform. If you lack the confidence to do it, admit it and work to improve. You have no chance of improving if you don’t start somewhere.
If you are not yet a leader, but expect to be sometime during your career, think now about what kind of a leader you want to be. It is important to reflect on the lessons learned from all the leaders you have observed throughout your career. Identify those who are effective leaders and take notes. You’ll be glad you did!
Servant leadership is a highly effective means of leadership in today’s fire service. Firefighting is a team sport. We need the team captain to help us know the plays, work with us to improve and work up a sweat with everyone else. If there isn’t enough water for everyone, the servant leader will make sure the crew drinks first. If you are an effective servant leader, chances are your crew won’t let you go thirsty either.