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A Question of Character

The greatest leader forgets himself


And attends to the development of others.


Good leaders support excellent workers.


Great leaders support the bottom ten percent.


Great leaders know that


The diamond in the rough


Is always found "in the rough."  


   
--Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching 600 BC

True effectiveness of any aspect of marketing lies in the quality of the results for the customer. True quality will almost always be reflected in the essential truth of the mission, vision and values of an organization. The underlying premise is that an organization that is closely aligned with its mission, vision and values will perform outstandingly. This is important in marketing public services because the care of every citizen is at stake, not just a few segmented markets.

The concern is even more critical in the delivery of emergency services. What this means for a fire department is not only going well beyond excellent service in handling immediate incidents (i.e., fire suppression and EMS), but creating a safe haven for the community that speaks to concern for each citizen.

But there is a much bigger issue at stake in the fire service. It is the firefighters and how they see themselves. Firefighters embark on a mission to put themselves between harm and the citizen at a moment's notice. The firefighter is the quintessential model of a human tool that must be in the best physical, mental and emotional shape to achieve the mission of protecting the community. There is an added dimension: the firefighter's cause -- who he or she is -- seen through the eyes of the community and, especially, in his or her own eyes, as performing a noble mission. The pressure this can exert on an individual firefighter is enormous. It is one of creating and raising very high expectations - those of the department, of one's own shift and of one's best buddy, not to mention those of one's family. Attention to the individual firefighter is one of the keys to ensuring a safe community.

If the goal of exceptional standards of excellence begins with the individual firefighter, how do we as leaders begin a process to bring this care to reality? It begins with our firefighters' character and their hearts. It begins with the nature of relationships - with oneself, with the department's teams and, then, with the community.

Some months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Joanne Turner, a mental health professional who said she had begun working with Osceola County, FL, Fire Rescue on the creation of a program dedicated to servant leadership. The newly appointed fire chief, Richard Collins, had asked her to consider taking on this project so that he could knit together a much more effective department for his firefighters and for the community. After I met both of them, I came to believe that this program could make a major contribution to the overall mission of not only Osceola Fire and Rescue, but to other departments.

What does this have to do with marketing the mission of the fire service? Everything.

Robert Greenleaf is recognized as the father of servant leadership. In his seminal work, Servant Leadership, published in 1977, he described servant leadership in this manner: "It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead...The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant...first to make sure that other people's highest priority needs are being served. The best test, and difficult to administer, is: do those served grow as persons, do they grow while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?"

Through extensive work with Greenleaf, Larry Spears (who edited Reflections on Leadership: How Robert K. Greenleaf's Theory of Servant-Leadership Influenced Today's Top Management Thinkers and Insights on Leadership: Service, Stewardship, Spirit, and Servant-Leadership) identified 10 characteristics that describe the essence of a servant leader: listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others and building community. To understand the concept's applications to the fire service, and specifically to an individual fire department, we must first understand how Rich and Joanne came to an understanding of servant leadership. Let's first look at their backgrounds.

Rich has been with Osceola County Fire Rescue since 2005, starting as deputy chief of administration. In April 2008 he was named director/fire chief. Previously, he was assistant chief with the Darien-Woodridge Fire District in Illinois. He has 20 years of fire service experience and holds multiple firefighting certifications. Joanne has been a licensed mental health counselor since 1993. She has worked in the local mental health facility in Osceola County, in the school district as a behavior specialist and at the Rader Institute at Charter Hospital for Eating Disorders. She speaks internationally on a variety of topics related to mental health and personal growth. In 1995, she opened Turning Point Counseling/Consulting in St. Cloud, FL. Her practice treats clients with mental health and substance-abuse issues.

Fostering Leadership

I asked Rich to share the growth of Osceola County Fire Rescue and the impetus behind servant leadership:

"Osceola County Fire Rescue is in its 19th year of service to the community. During that time, the department has had eight fire chiefs. It has also grown from a department with fewer than 50 firefighters to more than 300. That growth has resulted in a very young leadership and firefighting force. Currently, one-third of the department has fewer than three years of experience. Mentoring and building leaders within the department had been underway for the past several years, starting with the visionary leadership of the former fire chief, F.R. Montes de Oca. His efforts built the foundation for our current programs. Servant leadership is a logical step in the continued development of leadership within the department. It builds upon simple concepts that value employees.

"Developing a work environment in which employees feel engaged, empowered and passionate about their employment is the goal for every leader. A recent Gallup poll found that only 29% of the American workforce feels engaged in their work; meaning they work with passion and have a profound connection to their company. They drive innovation and move the organization forward. By comparison, 56% of the workforce said they are not engaged in their work; meaning they are putting in their time, but not their energy or passion. Many in the latter category feel they are not valued or not empowered to provide innovation.

"How can leaders and managers change these conditions and engage employees to bring about passion for their job? The answer is in how we care for and manage those we lead. Fire Rescue has recently begun the process of changing its leadership style in order to meet the needs of those we serve from residents to employees. This style of leadership is referred to as servitude leadership. It is a style of leadership that fosters an environment of empowerment; that moves decisions towards those closest to the results, and most importantly values the employee. The tenets of servitude leadership are simple."

The chief noted that leaders must first realize they are responsible for those they lead; not just their work behavior, but also their working environment. To be successful leaders, they must serve those in their charge. "This type of leadership turns the typical hierarchal pyramid upside down," Rich continued. "In the case of Osceola County Fire Rescue, the resident is at the top since they are the first-line citizen we serve. Our firefighters are at the next level, followed by each successive rank until chief/director. The chief/director's job is to carry out the mission for the residents by ensuring each rank has the tools, skills, abilities and environment to be successful. In essence, each rank should lift up the next level in order to reach ultimate success; or in this case the highest level of service to the residents. Companies from Nordstrom to the United States Marine Corps are embodying this hierarchal concept."

The chief told me that "once we understand that, as managers, we have a direct impact on the workplace environment, how do we raise the game for our employees? The answer revolves around the development of some simple habits within the organization. They include patience, kindness, humility, respectfulness, selflessness, forgiveness, honesty, accountability, and commitment. In essence managers treat people the way they would like to be treated. In this type of environment, employees will begin to feel valued and work towards the goals of the organization and that is the essence of leadership."

Roadmap To Success

I asked Joanne to provide an understanding of her approach and how she collaborated with the chief. Joanne said she had to begin "from scratch." She needed to understand the culture of the fire service in general and that of Osceola County Fire Rescue in particular. This meant digging deeply into the organization, one firefighter at a time:

"I began with a lot of research at first. Realizing that in the 17 years I have been a business owner myself, I am a servant leader by nature and actions. The more I learned about servant leadership, I was realizing more about what I personally held to be true and valuable for my own life. As this began to take root in me, it became more than just a workshop. This message became an opportunity to share and teach an approach to life and work that could enhance so many lives as it improved their relationships. In addition to the research with books, I spent time in the stations - probably two weeks' worth of hanging out, talking with the firefighters, going on ride-alongs, building rapport and hearing from them. This really helped me."

Joanne noted that some of the tools she used in the workshop were: The Awareness Wheel, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and The Servant Leadership Building Blocks. She also used research and tools from the mental health field that are modified and applied to the fire service career. Changing belief systems that were so rooted in the past to looking to something new, different and constantly changing is a significant challenge.

"Firefighters embrace tradition, which is a wonderful part of who they are (she continued). But being willing,,,to challenge the ones that are not suited for these days and times in the workplace was probably the greatest obstacle. This really had to be done in a way that was gentle enough that they would even be willing to look at the belief and possibly challenge it, but strong enough to move us through to the other side.

"In addition, the next obstacle was how to keep the progression going so the evolution of this new belief system could take place. The program is not presented in just one full-day workshop where the chance for real change for most of the participants would be slim. We offered the program in a three-part series monthly, concluding with an ongoing mentoring program, in which all of leadership participates. Some of the key skills we are attempting to build are awareness about self and taking responsibility for actions, being more action oriented and not reactionary, communicating in a way that is more respectful so a person feels heard and cared about, communicating needs more effectively, bonding through relationship and respect instead of bullying at someone's expense.

"At the end of each of the workshops participants completed an evaluation, all of which was read and used to improve areas mentioned. To add importance to the workshop and send the message of that importance, the Chief made the workshop mandatory, they came in on a scheduled day off, and he paid them for the day."

Milestones Of Success

Rich told me that he and Joanne meet with leadership, individually, quarterly. "Holding them to the standards of behavior with the servant leadership model we have presented, they will have to report their progress in changing behaviors to line up with the model and its characteristics. There will be measures in place to determine the level of success. In addition, they will report the ways their team is improving, or the areas they are working on. Success will be evident, just like it is evident when the servant leadership characteristics are not in place.

"The chief hopes that the outcome of the program will be a more respectful department, where firefighters feel cared about and more committed to the department, feel more of a 'heart connection to the department,' all because of the relationships formed with their immediate supervisors as a result of the program. This is a concern, because studies tell us in today's workplace many young people are leaving their jobs not because of the organization but because they don't feel that their immediate supervisor 'gets them.' So they will move on. The fear is with this happening, we could lose young men and women who have the potential of being great at their jobs. In a career where experience is a vital resource, we can't afford a revolving door of young people coming into the organization just to leave a few years later. A connection needs to be made with them, so they feel the desire and fulfillment to commit to the organization long term."

Strategic Planning

One of the benefits of the program has been the creation of a foundation for strategic planning."Our first session identified the importance of vision, mission, and values to servant leadership," he continued. "All participants were asked to answer questions on these topics. This generated discussion on what participants believed the vision of the department should be. It also identified core values deemed integral to the department.

The questionnaires were collected and results shared in the second session. In that session another discussion was lead to further refine and collect opinions on the values of the organization. Those results are currently being finalized and will be incorporated into the department's vision, mission and value statements. Once leadership identifies common core values and a shared vision, they begin to lead themselves towards the organizational goals. It contributes to the possible next steps in the formation of the department's strategic plan."

Your Next Move

This is a brief overview of a direct application of the servant leadership model to the fire service. Fire Rescue, with assistance from the Human Resources Department and Turning Point Counseling/Consulting, have developed a 12-hour training program on servitude leadership. This program explains servitude leadership, habits and skills to develop these leadership skills, communication techniques and mentoring skills to build up those you serve. Following the program, department leadership will continue to meet with officer and managers in one-on-one mentoring sessions.

BEN MAY, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, has been developing the discipline of fire and emergency services marketing management for the past 15 years. He has been a firefighter for Montgomery County, MD, Fire and Rescue and fire commissioner for the Woodinville, WA, Fire and Life Safety District. He has been a vice president of two international marketing firms over the last 25 years, and now is responsible for business development for Epcot at Walt Disney World Resort. Ben writes the Burning Passion blog and was a guest on the Six Days, Six Fires, 19 Children and 9 Adults Killed podcast on Radio@Firehouse.com. You can reach Ben by e-mail at benjaymay@gmail.com.

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