“The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
—Albert Einstein

“He who is good with a hammer tends to think everything is a nail.”
—Abraham Maslow

The fire service has produced some great leaders, but it’s no secret we’ve suffered over the years from weak leadership. Bad leadership, that ubiquitous organization killer, rears it ugly head time and again, and most noticeably when it counts the most—on the fireground.

I’ve met an awful lot of people in the fire business who wear the “Look at Me, I’m a Leader” sign around their necks who’ve forgotten they were even on a fire line. They don’t walk the walk, and their people know it. With such a credibility gap, how can they lead within traditional authoritarian leadership models? It’s virtually impossible, by definition.

Twenty years of smoke eating do not necessarily a leader make. Still, why is it that for so many firefighters, the officers they want running their fires are the ones they want leading their organizations? It’s natural to admire those who earn their stripes on the field of battle. The romantic voice in me says we’d be better off if there were more Leo Stapletons running fire departments today. The trend toward hiring or electing fire chiefs based on the “Q factor” or political orientation is no way to run a life safety business. Nor is installing the chief fire executive most likely to roll over and play dead for the town council.

I’ve heard many firefighters say of their bosses, “He forgot where he came from.” What they’re saying is, “He’ll no longer fall on the sword for the people lifting the heaviest load.” That he’s not serving his people. That somewhere along the lines of human communication and understanding and service, “I” replaced “we.” “Them” replaced “us.” When power-tripping or butt-covering “leadership” betrays or is perceived as betraying the fire service’s core values and thereby the firefighters’ trust, look out—the results are ugly, as many of you well know.

At the same time, with all deference to hardcore traditionalists, we must understand that the top-down, hierarchical, authoritarian leadership model is out of step with reality. The quotes at the top of this piece apply. Please read them again. This isn’t your grandpa’s fire service anymore.

Many fire departments still loosely follow long-held military leadership systems, with roots that extend to the earliest historical references, whereby thinking soldiers were considered a battlefield liability and, given their presumed limited intelligence and “disposability,” were manipulated and controlled by a few powerful leaders. A pluralistic society that encourages individualism has rendered that model obsolete.

Granted, emergency response operations demand hierarchical, command-and-control management systems that facilitate strategic and tactical objectives. Orders must be given and followed. But effective leadership in those situations demands a resonant trust between the leader and the follower, which can only be achieved reciprocally through individual empowerment—that’s to say, by nurturing thinking firefighters with a real voice in the process and a real sense of accountability and responsibility for the end result.

How better to advance organizational goals than to support and empower the people who are the organization and therefore are vested in its success? And how better to support them than to serve them? Hence the viability of the servant-leader model of leadership. Cynics who think servant leadership is counterintuitive to a quasi-military system should note that the U.S. military is giving due consideration to applications of the servant-leader model.

Inverted pyramids and servant leadership are nothing new. I don’t pretend to be a leadership guru, and I won’t pretend that leading is easy. I do know this, though: The practice of servant leadership in some form worked real well for some extraordinary people who changed the face of history. Organizations are as good as the people in them, so it’s only common sense to serve and empower the people who ultimately drive it.

Should egos and autocracies prevail, we’ll be on course to repeat past failures. Firefighters are bright, resourceful people with untapped energy. They don’t need elitist, self-appointed fire doctors dispensing prescriptions that mask the symptoms of illness. We’ve had many years of that, and it doesn’t work. It’s time for the followers to lead and the leaders to serve, for a holistic approach that balances fire tradition with forward-thinking solutions that come from the very heart of the organization, from the people who have the most to gain and the most to lose.

Firefighting servant leadership is the medicine this fire service needs.

In 604 B.C., the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “Go to the People / Learn from them / Live with them / Start with what they know / Build with what they have. / But of the best leaders, / When the job is done, / When the task is accomplished, / The people will all say, / ‘We have done it ourselves.'”

What a concept.

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