Leadership Sector: Are You a Servant Leader?

The responsibilities & possibilities of leadership

Mention the word boss or management to someone in EMS, and an image will usually pop in their head that isn’t too flattering. Why? Because we usually remember our bad bosses and experiences before our good ones. You’ve probably had some bosses who were power hungry or inept, who micro-managed everything or who simply had no clue how to manage people. Watch TV or read the paper, and you’ll find stories of embezzlement, sex scandals and lawsuits for all types of discrimination.

In a memo to the Memphis Fire Department personnel before my arrival, I described my leadership style and used the phrase servant leadership. Several staff members wrote me back, wanting to know more about the concept. In the memo, I wrote that servant leaders devote themselves to serving the needs of the community and the organization, focus on meeting the needs of those they lead and develop employees to bring out the best in them. But the attitude goes deeper than that.

Servant leaders aren’t concerned about grabbing power; nor do they think they sit on a throne at the top of the organizational chart. Usually, they see the org chart flipped upside-down, with them at the bottom and the patient at the top. In essence, they enter into management so they can use their position to help others, knowing they can do the most good by accepting the responsibilities and possibilities of leadership.

There are excellent opportunities in EMS for servant leadership. Managers of EMS organizations can devote themselves to the community and to the organization that serves the public. As I tell EMS managers all the time, your EMTs and paramedics can make or break you. They hold your future in their hands. Their actions can put your organization on the front page of the newspaper Æ’ for better or for worse. They can also let their feelings about you be publicly known. An extreme example: I know of one manager who led two different EMS organizations, and the employees at both services started petitions to get rid of him. Since then, that manager has been hired to run a 9-1-1 system for a major metropolitan area, and dispatchers of this agency have recently also publicly called for his ousting.

Servant leaders consider themselves “first among equals.” This belief is at the very heart of servant leadership. A servant leader does not consider themselves above those they lead. They value their staff members as peers Æ’ to teach and to learn from. The EMS manager who’s a servant leader willingly leads others in order to reach an agreed-upon goal, but without ego or personal priority.

The servant leader listens to and cares for their employees. Further, they actively seek out the opinions and ideas of their personnel. When the EMS manager actively listens, a relationship of mutual respect usually grows. Listening is inherent to being a servant leader; being sensitive to others is a part of who they are. They use those skills to learn from their followers; they are more than mentors.

How do you become a servant leader? It’s more than a set of rules you follow or a step-by-step process. It’s a state of mind. That state of mind leads to what the servant leader does, drawing on that philosophy, which includes listening to and involving others, promoting teamwork rather than individual decision making and enhancing problem-solving skills.

The servant leader regards leadership in much the same way that a driver views a car Æ’ as a method of transport to work, shopping or the homes of family and friends. A car allows you to fulfill your goals, but one wrong turn or excessive speed can result in injury or death.

Leadership, too, allows you to accomplish your goals. It opens doors and allows you to realize opportunities. However, it requires careful use. Because, as with the car, mistakes can be costly. Leadership, like that car, can be used to destroy instead of to transport, to hurt people instead of to help them. And without paying attention to ourselves, reckless leadership can put an end to the leader as well. The wise EMS manager, then, is cautious with this power and drives the leadership vehicle while respecting the privilege of their authority.

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