8 Attitudes of a Servant Leader

CarolinaFireJournal - By Douglas Cline
By Douglas Cline
04/24/2015 -

True leadership begins with serving. No role, position, job, task or calling of leadership in emergency services can be effective unless there is first a willingness to serve by the individual. Many want successful positions, ranks and roles in leadership, but not everyone wants to serve. Proper serving in leadership begins with a proper attitude.


History’s greatest achievements have been made by individuals who excelled only slightly over the masses of other individuals in their respective fields. I am reminded of this when I study athletes. Most have significant levels of talent. The same is true for the fire service. Most of our personnel have strong predicated skills, abilities and knowledge. So what puts the people excelling in front of the others? Most times that small difference is attitude. Over the years I have had the opportunity to spend time with many different fire departments, the late Ralph Jackman, fire chief in Vergennes, Vermont, captured this difference. In a conversation standing in the apparatus bay of the Vergennes Fire Department he commented that his department did not have the greatest equipment or the newest fire apparatus. In fact, he stated they sometimes struggle with the financial end of keeping up. He did quickly point out that his personnel had passion, desire and the right attitude to serve, which was the critical factor in the success of the organization. He went on to further reiterate the importance of having a positive attitude and what that brings to the formula of success. He stated, “Give me someone who has a good attitude and I can work with them on the other things.”

Certainly aptitude is important to our success in life or the success of an organization. Yet anyone who has been around the fire service for more than a few days knows success or failure is precipitated more by mental attitude than by mere mental capacities. We have to recognize the true importance of the total equation I.Q. (Intelligence Quotient) + A.Q. (Attitude Quotient) = Success or Failure. We have all witnessed individuals with an extremely high I.Q. and their performance was low and the opposite of low I.Q and high performance. The difference in each of these formulas is the attitude quotient. There is very little difference in people, but that little difference, attitude, makes a big difference.

So how do we become successful organizations excelling in all aspects? First we must have talented personnel in place. We must foster positive attitudes. This fostering is critical and it is not just the responsibility of the fire chief. Sure it may begin there but the critical dimension is within the officers, especially company officers. It is paramount that officers maintain a strong and positive attitude. The true leaders and trainers of today’s fire service are the company officers. In many organizations it is glaringly apparent that the company officers don’t possess the correct attitudes. This is a serious issue because they begin to affect the troops, as their leadership is mostly what these individuals see. Just like cancer growing, attitudes spreads very quickly whether it is positive or negative.

Some individuals would look at a pile of rubble and say “what a mess” while others will look at the same pile and say “what an opportunity.” Which one of these individuals would you want leading the fire department in your community? Most would say the one who has a vision of what that “mess” could be. This is an excellent example of a positive attitude.

With all this said, how is your attitude? Before you answer, what would others say if they had this opportunity to answer? I encourage you to take a true examination here. As a chief officer, I hope my personnel have excellent minds and outstanding attitudes. But if I have to choose an “either-or” situation, without hesitation I would want their A.Q. (attitude) to be high!

This article will provide eight essential attitudes every leader needs. These eight concepts are attributed to the work of Pastor Tim Gill with Advancing Ministries. I have taken Pastor Gill’s excellent work, utilized the concepts from his blog and metamorphosed them into the fire service realm.

1. Servant Fire Officers Express Encouragement

“There should be consolation in a servant leader...” Consolation means providing solace, comfort, exhortation and encouragement. Servant leaders, aka servant fire officers are encouragers. They seek to raise the confidence level of others. This concept refers to coaching and mentoring.

A mentor is more than just an advisor; they are a coach to the “mentee” in the various aspects of development. An individual who is a servant leader and mentor provides you with wisdom, technical knowledge, assistance, support, empathy, opportunity, criticism, leadership and respect throughout, and often beyond, your development years. Mentoring helps individuals who are youthful in their position understand how their ambitions fit into professional development, training, higher education, department mission and career choices.

An effective mentoring relationship develops over time. The mentee benefits from the mentor’s support, knowledge, skills, wisdom and coaching. Later, both individuals deepen their working/mentoring relationship, perhaps collaborating on projects, in positions or in afforded opportunities, in which the mentee develops into a junior colleague.

After a while, the mentee may need some separation from the mentor to test his or her own ideas. This distancing is a sign that the mentoring relationship is maturing and providing the mentee with the skills needed to function independently. Finally, both mentee and mentor may redefine their relationship as one of equals, characterized over time by informal contact and mutual assistance, thus becoming true professional colleagues.

The important component in this process is that the mentee must begin from day one paying it forward. Yes the mentee will become quickly a mentor to someone junior. If the mentee does not become a mentor or pay it forward throughout their career this becomes a failure in the system.

I challenge you as a leader to be a servant leader that possesses this quality of encouragement to the fullest.

2. Servants Have Genuine Empathy

“Servant leaders should have bowels and mercies...” Bowels and mercies mean to feel deeply. It describes the compassion that moves a man to the deepest depths of his being. Servant leaders are not detached emotionally from those they serve. Your officer, if they are a servant leader should be touched with the feelings of our infirmities.

Servant leadership empathy, you know when you’ve felt it. It opens your heart and pulls forth emotion and makes you want to not fail the leader as you appreciate the leader for their leadership. This empathy creates a strong bond and strengthens understanding between the people, you as the leader and your subordinate communicating.

The definition of empathy is the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another. For some, this skill comes naturally while others must work to develop it. Within high performance organizations practicing servant leadership, empathy will start one person at a time, extending outward through the organization until this practice carries ripples of energy to others — both personnel and leaders — growing and expanding throughout the organization.

Often times it seems that officers are not connected with their personnel. This is a critical component of being a good servant leader. It is important that you know who your personnel are and things about them. One of the ways that I get to know the personnel underneath me is spending time with them and having conversation. In that conversation I do a lot of listening and make many mental notes, which I later write down to help me remember little details. I know the names of their significant other, kids names, when birthdays are and what is going on in their lives that they are sharing.

Here is a good way to get to know the families and the personnel and gain respect — have them spend time at the firehouse. We used to do family nights, outings like cookouts and we celebrated whatever we could find to celebrate.

So why is this important? It helps you understand them as a subordinate and helps you to see things in their lives that can cause stress and affect the way they perform. It may also give you an opportunity to coach and mentor as well — leading them to a whole new level in their personal life and the endeavors of their career.

People need to be accepted and recognized for their special and unique individualism. One must assume the good intentions of coworkers and not reject them as people, even when forced to reject and/or correct their behavior or performance.

Empathy is a key practice for the servant leader — and also a responsibility. It entails active listening and truly feeling the emotions of the other person and doing so without judgment and criticism. Empathy begins with listening — truly being present in the moment with someone and listening with your whole self. Being able to do this is not easy; it takes a lot of work and is an “art.” Listening not only with your ears but also with your heart. Slowing down to feel what they are saying and intuit the meaning between the words. It is important to know that if you are forming your response while listening during a conversation, then you are not truly present with the individual and you are not truly listening. Therefore you cannot have true empathy as you have missed so many components in the conversation.

As a fire officer I challenge you to work on this area. I know it does not come easy but I am confident if you are truly embracing the servant leader attitude then this is something you can master. Your mastery of this ability will enhance your ability to lead others and organizations.

3. Servant Leaders Maintain Unity of the Organization

“Servant leaders must be like-minded, having the same love...” Servants are not keepers of the peace; they are peacemakers. Peacemakers are not appeasers; they seek to please the mission and vision of the organization bringing subordinates into harmony with the organizational culture. Peacemakers don’t just stop complaining, misconceptions, bad attitudes and personal wars; they replace the causes of these with reconciliation, organizational focus and unity. Servant leaders lead by creating a like-minded culture; becoming one based on the same love for the job.

As a servant leader you are focused on subordinates being a critical part of the team. If we explore TEAM as an acronym it can represent “Together Everyone Accomplishes More.” As a servant leader it is import to recognize that the organization is like a complex gear system where each component is dependent upon the other for the mechanism to operate effectively.

In the position as a servant leader often times you are faced with bringing personnel into harmony with the organizational culture. This means that you will need to tell the subordinates what they need to hear not what they always want to hear. This often means showing the subordinate their deficiencies. Even doing this it is critical for the servant leader to remember that their focus is on the individuals you serve and helping make them successful and in turn making the organization successful by having a unity between the member and the organizational team. This is often difficult, as many times we don’t want to have controversy. As a servant leader you are often faced in this component with controversy and must embrace it as opportunities not problems.

4. Servants Understand Purpose

“Servant leaders being of one accord, of one mind...” Servants see the “Big Picture.” The trademark of a servant leader — aka fire officers — is their passion for purpose! They breath as one with the vision, mission and values of the organization focusing their efforts on these. Their intent is organizational not individualism. Will they be without conflicts ... absolutely NOT! But, a servant leader in one accord with the mission, vision and values of the organization will not stop serving until they have accomplished the mission. A servant leader’s mission is taking care of the customers, both internal (personnel) and external (the public). Servant leaders don’t serve out of compulsion, rather out of intention, purpose, passion and the love of the job!

I have to ask what would your passion meter show if it were measuring your passion for the job? If you are thinking that may not be a good thing it may be time to get a tune up. Your motor or drive for the job is not on track. The power of your engine is short a few horsepower and that needs to be fixed. This is easier said than done, I know. Where you focus is on the organization and making it and the people in it better, not on your self. I can promise that when it is about the organization then all systems will be on go and you will be amazed as to what power you will have as a leader.

5. Servants Are Not Politically Motivated

“Let nothing be done through strife...” Honor, integrity, structure and order are essential parts of the organization and the leader’s focus. Strife, mudslinging and salacious smear campaigns erode the character of the leader and the organization. You have to have pure intentions and not riding a hidden political/personal agenda to be a servant leader. Your efforts must be pure and focused on the customers you serve both internal and external. Strife here means “electioneering or intriguing for position; a desire to put one’s self forward, a partisan and fractious spirit.” Aristotle used this same word (strife) to denote “a self-seeking pursuit of political power by unfair means.” The thing about servant leaders is that while they may serve in a leadership position, they don’t need a leadership position to serve.

The above concept is where we see leaders who emerge that are the informal leaders. It is important to remember that rank has nothing to do with leadership but rather the traits and following one has that is attributed to their leadership ability.

6. Servants Are Not Conceited

“Let nothing be done through...vainglory” Servant leaders do not have an excessively favorable opinion of their own importance. Their focus is upon the team and the other members of the team. Servant leaders do not feel the need to attract attention to them and will hang out in the shadow or the bushes allowing others to be in the forefront and support from behind. Servant leaders look to the needs of others first. They look to meet the needs of others with a focus on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to push others to self-actualization and recognition.

It is important to note that there is nothing wrong with having a proper sense of pride as long as it sits on a proper base. That base is the pride of the organization and being proud of the accomplishments of others. Servant leaders do not desire the spotlight but prefer to see outcomes not seeking credit but enjoying what has been accomplished. They use discretion when posting their exploits on social media. Vainglory is essentially empty glory. There is only one way to gain glory and that is to give it to others.

7. Servants Are Humble

“Servant leaders in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.” Genuine humility is not bemoaning how low you are, it is about elevating other people. Servant leaders are about developing and showcasing others. They enjoy putting others in the spotlight for their talent, knowledge, skills and abilities. Leading with humility is investing in others. Servant leaders are mentors, coaches and facilitators. Servant leaders recognize it is about rejoicing over the fact that those you lead can do a better job than you. Lowliness of mind or humility indicates, not a merely moral quality, but the subjection of self under the authority of, and in response to, the love of the organization. The organization is the primary focus of the servant leader recognizing that the most valuable resource of the organization is the personnel who make up the organization.

8. Servants Work Well With Others

“Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Working with others may be the servant leaders most difficult task, but servant leaders must strive to be team players. As a fire officer being a servant leader you should not be concerned about celebrity status, instead focus on paying everything forward through sharing of experiences, knowledge and affording opportunities. It is important that a servant leader be the facilitator of other individual’s successes and recognition. Your success will come from other’s accomplishments.

Working with others is a choice, but it is paramount in the success of servant leadership and compels commitment. Organizations alone do not ensure that people will work together. The group dynamics, which are associated directly to interpersonal dynamics, help you determine and work within the group. The goal is teamwork! Teamwork requires servanthood fostered by servant leaders through a servant culture. Each of these components is critical and must exist or is developed in order to have a successful team.

In an effort to focus in on the critical topic of attitude and servant leadership I hope that this article will serve as a guide for current and future leaders as we focus on returning to the roots the emergency services were founded upon. Remember we are standing on the shoulders of giants, capitalize on what they accomplished and demonstrated. Your additions will help create more giants and will further strengthen the foundation we already have as a fire service.

Douglas Cline is a 32-year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Rescue. Chief Cline is President of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and the Immediate Past President of the Southeastern Association of Fire Chiefs (SEAFC).
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