LAFD Leadership Academy: Servant Leadership

June 30, 2020

“The first and most important choice a leader makes is the choice to serve, without which one’s capacity to lead is severely limited,” Robert Greenleaf, founder of the modern servant leadership movement.

Servant leadership is the most applicable leadership philosophy for your profession. This is because, at the core of your work, you serve our people, community, and nation. When you reflect on your personal leadership philosophy, what kind of leader do you want to be, a servant leader or an autocratic leader? There have been a lot of autocratic leaders in history, i.e. kings and queens, but that type of leadership will not succeed in a business where serving is at its core.

You are a servant. Yes, this is your job and you are getting paid, but there are many other professions out there that have much less aggravation and stress, since the most stressful thing a person can go through is something that affects their quality of life or their family’s. Aside from the aggravation and stress, being a servant is an honor, because while you’re putting stress on your life you’re having an immediate calming effect on others in danger. You don’t even have to do anything and your presence is calming and reassuring in itself, and that is an honor.

So, if the core of your profession is serving, why would that change when you are called to lead? No matter how long you’ve been around or what titles you’ve obtained you’ve never “made it,” in fact the work should get harder. The higher up you go the more you need to take on. You are setting the conditions for your people to succeed. You need to be constantly thinking of them and not just your own success, because even if you think you’re a great leader, if the organization fails, so do you.

It’s all about your people, so think about how you can make the work environment better for them, because truly they are the ones doing the work. While there are rigid standards in your profession, even they have evolved to improve efficiency and safety. For example, you couldn’t work with gear from the 50’s because work would not only be harder but unsafe. You also need to think about how you are going to help the organization do more, and to do so, you need to know what motivates and inspires your people. Motivation is in the moment and can help you get to the finish line, while inspiration lasts.

As a leader, you are the sum of the total parts, even the parts that don’t always align with you. For example, there is always that generation behind you, and as you get older it may be fun and perhaps even an honor to complain about the “young ones.” These days everyone complains about “millennials,” but they may be what compromise the majority of your organization. Eventually, you have to bring in new blood. In the Marine Corps more than 70 percent of the organization is under 25 years old, so the leaders can’t complain about “Millennials” or else they’d be out of touch with their organization. You may have your own biases, experiences, or projections of how you think things are supposed to be, but that may not always align with your people’s need.

As a leader, you’re first priority should be serving your people, and by prioritizing that you are setting your team up to succeed. If they succeed, you succeed, because you cannot be perfect by yourself, no individual is perfect, but as a whole you can get pretty close. You are in a service driven industry, and there is no higher calling. So, first serve your people, so they may serve others.

By Alicia Iwakiri, adapted from the LAFDLA presentation of Col. Daren J. Erickson, United States Marine Corps

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