Leadership on the Fly: On Servant Leadership and Love

Birmingham firefighters respond to a fire in December 2020

Commentary by Clay Magee

This past weekend marked my one-year anniversary as a lieutenant, the end of my probation. Six months ago, I gave my thoughts on lessons learned in my first six months as a lieutenant with regards to leadership. I talked about concepts that I’ve learned over the years as a firefighter and those I learned in my first six months of leading. When I really look back over the last year, however, I’m drawn to the ideas of servant leadership and love. Please don’t think this is fixing to be some mushy article on the “L” word. And writing about it doesn’t mean that I’m the best at it or that I come into the firehouse every day and kill it. I’m human; I don’t. We all have our days, but our overall attitude builds the relationship with the people we lead and serve.

Thanks to Alan Brunacini, the concept of customer service in the fire service has taken off over the past decades. Personally, I don’t see the fire service as a business nor do I see the citizens as customers. That does not mean that I don’t view the citizens as human beings or that I have not sworn an oath to protect their life and property. The citizen is the reason the fire service exists. It’s a service to humanity and to the citizens of your community, but it’s not a business transaction. I believe that we should treat the citizens with respect not because they are “customers” but because it’s the right thing to do when you have an encounter with someone and a mutual respect is given and received.

Most business and organization priorities usually go in this order: profit, customers, and then employees. Profit is the goal in business, but in other kinds of organizations, accomplishing the organization’s goals takes priority over profit. The goal of most fire departments is to provide rapid and reliable services across a myriad of disciplines to the citizens. When the business model is applied to the fire service, it becomes all about performing the job we were hired to do, customer (citizen) interaction (what the citizen thinks and feels about the service they received), and lastly about the employee. Many fire departments use this model, but when it is paired with the idea of customer service from Chief Brunacini and what those leaders know about customer service from the business world, it can start to cause problems. In the business world, the customer is always right. We’ve all heard it; it’s all about the bottom dollar. And when so much value is placed on the customer, that value is also placed on complaints. When complaints are filed and punishment is given, the firefighter doesn’t always feel valued. Some complaints are obviously valid, but many times in the fire service, complaints can be trivial. A lot of it I believe boils down to the communication that occurs usually in mere minutes between the firefighter and the citizen. Often in these encounters there’s no time for processing or clarification. I do not believe that the citizen is always right, and when firefighters feel like they are always going to be on the losing side of complaint, it will affect members’ behavior.

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There are several companies out there that are known for being the best places to work and providing the best customer service. Think Chick-fil-A, Southwest Airlines, and Starbucks. Many can recall the positive interactions we’ve had dealing with these companies. What do they all have in common? They all practice servant leadership. A company that practices servant leadership has their priorities in a different order: love the employees, customer service, and the goals of the organization.

Leadership crosses boundaries regardless if it is in a business or in a fire department. That’s because leadership is about people, and because of that, leadership principles that work at these organizations can work in the fire department. Those being led respond to the leadership and in turn carry these feelings and attitude to the customer in a business. In our case, that means the citizens that we interact with on a regular basis. At the heart of building a culture where employees feel empowered and provide excellent service to the citizens are the concepts of servant leadership and love.

Human nature is to be loved, and it’s no different when it comes to employees of a business or firefighters with a department. Firefighters want to know that the leadership supports them and has their back and best interests in mind. Without the firefighters, the citizens will not receive the service they pay for. The level of service they receive can be tied back to the feelings and attitudes of the firefighter in the field. Leaders have an ability to make the firefighters the best they can possibly be.

Servant leadership is about making sure your people are taken care of, and I mean truly taken care of. Your job as a servant leader is to meet the needs of your subordinates. What does that look like? At the lieutenant level, that might be making sure all the guys fix their plates before you. At the battalion chief level, that might mean buying toilet paper for a station when the department has run out. Servant leadership is about making your firefighters feel valued and appreciated.

Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines, believed that the best way to lead a company was to make love the top priority. When people feel loved they will respond positively to the request of their leadership. On the other hand, “leaders” that belittle, berate, embarrass, or ignore their subordinates will not only lose the respect of their subordinates, but will also cause morale to erode. This will additionally result in the loss of the “customer service” they are so concerned with that they have placed it above the feelings and morale of their employees. As Chief Brunacini said when talking about creating a positive internal environment: “It’s tough not to give back what you get.” Being a leader is all about loving and serving those who operate below you. Our job as an officer, regardless of rank, is to make sure that our firefighters are well trained and capable of performing. On top of that, it is our responsibility to make sure they perform to the top of their ability. When our firefighters know we care about them, they’ll perform better, they’ll have a better attitude, and they’ll support our mission…and our mission is all about THEM (the citizen).

CLAY MAGEE is an instructor with Magic City Truck Academy and a fire lieutenant and paramedic with Birmingham (AL) Fire and Rescue. He began his career with the East Oktibbeha Volunteer Fire Department in 2004. He has a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University and an associate of fire science degree from Columbia Southern University. He has been published in Fire Engineering and contributes to the Fire Engineering Community. He is an organizer of the Deep South Fire Conference. He has taught HOT classes at the Alabama Fire College, LSU FETI, Metro Atlanta Firefighters Conference, Firemanship Conference Portland, and multiple departments across the state of Alabama.


This commentary reflects the views of the author and not necessarily the views of Fire Engineering.

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