A Question of Character

The greatest leader forgets himselfAnd 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...

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."