Servant leadership within command structures

Balancing “I say, you do” with empathy and stewardship


By Guillermo Fuentes, MBA, Fitch & Associates

I often hear the theory of servant leadership and how it doesn’t apply to the concept of command, as paramilitary systems are inherently top-down structures. The concept in command structures is, “I say and you do.” This makes it sound like the two concepts are mutually exclusive.

The reality is that servant leadership is misunderstood and often extrapolated from examples rather than the true intent of its origins. We in the paramilitary hear of concepts of CEO for the day or the bouncing ball room from Google and say that it does not apply to us. That is 100% correct, but, equally correct is that it is not what was intended by the originator of the concept.

An organization is a living entity, and the cultural and ethical construct will be built either around mistrust and secretive behavior or around servant leadership.
An organization is a living entity, and the cultural and ethical construct will be built either around mistrust and secretive behavior or around servant leadership. (Photo/Getty Images)

Robert Greenleaf’s “The Servant as Leader,” written in 1970, recognized what is even more true today, that the cradle-to-grave employee was coming to an end. And more, that employers had to pay attention to the employees if they wanted to retain them. From Greenleaf’s work, theorists like Larry Spears laid out 10-key aspects of what he referred to as the “servant leader.”

1. Be a good listener

Servant leaders always listen to people before they speak their minds. They want to know what their people think and how they feel.

2. Have empathy

Servant leaders feel for their people and don't turn a blind eye toward their problems and issues. They have the ability to share and understand other’s feelings while putting aside their own.

3. Heal those around you

A servant leader is capable of healing people with a focus on their emotional health and a feeling of completeness. This means the leader needs to make sure that people have access to knowledge and resources that enable them to create a healthy and peaceful working environment.

4. Be aware

Servant leaders are fully aware of themselves and their people. Knowing their own strengths and weaknesses is important to performance and growth as a leader. Self-awareness can also help with how leaders view situations.

5. Persuade without being forceful

A good leader is capable of convincing people in different ways. Leaders make use of their authority as a last resort to make people do something but instead motivate and encourage people to take the desired course of action. A leader is not forceful or bossy.

6. Conceptualize and communicate a vision

A servant leader can help build a concept for people. This includes the task of creating a vision and mission to provide a sense of direction for the entire team.

7. Channel foresight

A good leader can anticipate future events and how they will impact everyone. The ability to foresee is not a God-gifted talent but rather a skill that is acquired through experience, learning and analysis of past trends.

8. Practice stewardship

Stewardship refers to accountability. It is the ability to take responsibility for the actions, behaviors and performances of your team.

9. Commit

Good servant leaders are those whose main focus is the people, and this makes the leader fully committed to their growth and development.

10. Build a community

The leader should be able to walk with and among the people. Forming a sense of community can often be done by “demonstrating his or her unlimited liability for a quite specific community-related group,” according to Greenleaf.

I would argue that those concepts apply entirely to emergency services. Command structures and the need for “I say, you do” definitely applies on any critical incident that is time sensitive and requires immediate and decisive actions. But an organization is a living entity, and the cultural and ethical construct will be built either around mistrust and secretive behavior or around servant leadership.


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