Leadership That Matters, Part 7

So here we are on Day Seven of this series; while I see my numbers are up, the comments are surprisingly few.  I’m always hesitant to say that you agree with me or disagree, but what I think I’m hearing from those of you who have commented or PM’ed me is that you appreciate the nod toward what is often termed “servant leadership”, as far as altruism is concerned. 

And really, altruistic leadership IS servant leadership, in that leaders who practice these ideas put others before self.  It takes a leader who is very secure in their own skin to serve rather than to flex their muscle and wield their power to get things done.  As we said much earlier, anyone who has something to offer in return can practice transactional leadership.  So long as you can pay, you will get.

Ultimately, however, there will come a time when you need your charges to dig deep, to exert themselves in a way you can’t compensate.  In a quid pro quo existence, when you really challenge your followers, if you can’t reward them now, you will have to pay them later.  It is in these situations where the balance now falls in favor of the ruled rather than to the ruler.  If you really believe this to be true, then you are at a serious disadvantage when you must ask them to take on yet another challenge.  In an office setting, this might work out.  In jobs like fighting fire or tending to the ill and injured, you will not be able to keep up with this tab.

I'm going to give you an example that isn’t for the faint of heart, so you will have to excuse me, but it serves to illustrate my point:

As a servant leader, I tell my troops that there is nothing I will ask them to do that I won’t do myself.  My job for a long time was to lead our special ops teams.  For those of you who aren't emergency service types, special operations involves work with a great deal of additional training to our normal emergency duties of fighting fire or practicing as EMTs.  Special operations often encompasses response to hazardous materials alarms or technical rescues, or other work that most people would find too terrifying, too dangerous, or beyond their own physical or mental capabilities.

One night we just finished dinner and got a phone call at the station.  An engine company and a medic were already out at a residence where they suspected a deceased patient was located.  The last time anyone had seen the deceased was several days before, and the statement was that the situation was beyond the capability of the personnel on scene.  As they even got close to the front door, the smell was overwhelming and the flies already swarming; nobody could even get into the house to determine what the issue was. 

I took my company down there and getting the face-to-face report, I brought my crew together.  I informed them of what the report was, I told them what I expected we would find.  And more importantly, I told them that while I was concerned about the entire situation, especially with the very real potential for a gruesome finding, if any of them were not comfortable with handling this situation, I would understand.  However, since the job needed to be done, I would personally lead the team in to investigate and solve the problem.

As it was, my team did go in, with the proper PPE, and in fact, the scene was entirely horrible.  Nothing in our training prepares you for things like that.  However, my relationship with the team members enabled us to get through the situation together.  One individual was struggling more than the rest of us; I asked him to stay back out of the room itself and help us with logistical support.  The rest of us performed our grim task in extraordinarily bad conditions, secured the remains, and brought them to a point where the coroner’s office could then retrieve the deceased.  We then exited the home, performed our decon, stowed our equipment, and returned to service.

Talking with the crew later, I asked them how they felt.  Even the most stoic of our team showed a little bit of stress over the event.  The thing that stuck with me, however, was their insistence that when they saw I was willing to do the job and I placed my concerns for their own well-being first, they were all willing to do whatever it took to get the job done, even if it meant challenging their own abilities beyond what they thought they were capable of.

No amount of reward would have changed the attitudes necessary to do this kind of task.  Many teams I know would have refused the job; it really isn’t OUR job to remove remains.  But someone had to do it, if it wasn’t me or my crew, it would have been someone else.  I trusted my crew to tell me what their limitations were and they trusted me to take them to the absolute limit and not put them in a situation that mentally or physically, they would not be capable of handling.  This required leadership from the heart; showing your subordinates that you placed their welfare above your own, but being firm about the job that had to be done, and motivating the team to do what it took.

Back in July of last year, I wrote about taking my daughter Caroline on a Ferris wheel for the first time:

She was tentative at first and I was watching her eyes as she was taking it all in.  She sat in my lap and clung to me in fear as we made the first few rounds.  While she was crying, it wasn't hysterical crying, and we all kept reassuring her until she finally turned around and saw the Ocean City Boardwalk's lights and sights trailing off to the north.  She dried her eyes and was immediately enthusiastic.  By the time she got off the ride, she was so excited she could hardly contain herself.

This is the heart of transformational leadership.  I could have bribed her with something to get her on there and in some cases, that's what it takes for us as parents to get our kids to try something.  But when you CAN pull off something like this, where you can convince them to trust you and it pays off with a positive experience, it pays off multifold.  They see they can trust you to look out for their interests and in return, they are willing to make the leap, even at the risk of failure sometimes.  That takes a very mature relationship and purely transactional leadership won't  get you there.  It requires a bond, sacrifice of your own comfort, and a willingness to work through the issues.


  • Svend says:

    This parallels the Navy's concept of covenant leadership quite nicely.

  • I’ve believed in, and tried to be a good servant leader whenever I could. It’s not easy. People want to take advantage of you. They might consider you weak, or even consider you have ulterior motives. In my perspective a good servant leaders, as you describe in here has to walk the walk, do what the guys with boots on the ground do. One of my 1st actions as a new chief in a new department was roll hose after a working fire. These guys didn’t know me from atom. We were a small department when guys called out last minute, sometimes I was asked to work on the engine or ambulance. The 1st time I went to move my gear to the rig, to the backseat position i would be riding, the Captain started to move his to the backseat. i said nicely, “what’s your job?”. he said” Captain of the engine.” I said that’s what I pay you for, I’ll take the backseat spot of the call out and you do the job you earned”. 1 of the benefits of doing this, is you see the crew from a different perspective. One last example from that department. We obtained old structures to to train in. The class of the day, being taught by one of our captains was breach walls from the interior for self rescue. I made sure I went 1st and completed the task properly with another firefighter. The point is in all these examples, I took the time to walk the walk with guys. For them to get ot know me and my capabilities and visa versa. On the other end we were a department in need of change, when appropriate I led and facilitated that change. All of these actions didn’t come about because I was super smart or intuitive, it was just the opposite, I did some pretty stupid things in the past, but I learned from them. While is sounds like it went smooth, it didn’t. it required a significant amount of analysis on my part, that included surveying our department at all levels, as well as trusted advisers outside. And to get to this point, there was quite a few revisions to the IAP. Leadership of any type is far from the cute quotes and quips everyone latches onto, it is hard work. it takes effort, it take education, it take feedback, it takes scraping your knees and knuckles and getting back up and learning how not to do that again. In any level of leadership you have to build trust, respect and be given the ability to lead by your team, by the team. On the other end of the spectrum, servant leadership requires you to do the right thing, to be an positive example, although you want to be 1 of the guys. And at times, it requires you to take corrective action. if you’ve earned respect, your team will understand the actions you have taken for the betterment of the organization and those you serve. My last little bit of rant is about altruism. I did a position paper on this topic back in college last decade. I truly don’t believe there is pure altruism. It’s my perspective if you don’t have the egotistical feeling good about yourself and what you’ve accomplished; you can’t be truly altruistic. I learned along time ago in the Psychology of Relationships, if I don’t feel good about myself 1st, I can’t really feel good about others and respect and support them. My holistic view of Altruism is you need to feel really, really good about making someone else succeed before you do or at your expense.

  • drydiggins says:

    I learned a bit about servant leadership as member and chair of a church council.

    When going to meetings in my counties (I work as a Communications Coordinator for the CA Office of Emergency Services.) my opening line for presentations is often, “I’m from the state, I have no authority to direct your county government to do anything. That said, I’ll help in any way I can.”

    Another piece of my job is to provide servant leadership to a cadre of technical volunteers. People, that should we try to hire them, we couldn’t afford ’em. Many of these people are very accomplished in their chosen field of endeavor. Some are sole proprietors of technical businesses. “BecauseWeSaySo” is DOA.

    I’m REALLY interested to read all the articles in this series. Would you consider posting direct links to each of the parts?

    Attached picture entirely unrelated but I wanted to share.

    Best Regards,
    George Lowry, Assistant Chief – Telecommunications
    Governor’s Office of Emergency Services
    Mather, CA

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