Dr. Reginald Freeman, Chief Risk Officer with the HAI Group, delves into his experiences with servant leadership, emphasizing its departure from traditional autocratic leadership styles. He explains the philosophy’s core idea of inverting the organizational chart, placing leaders at the service of their teams. Dr. Freeman shares practical examples of servant leadership in action, from acknowledging individual achievements to involving team members in decision-making processes. The episode aims to inspire leaders to adopt this approach.


Craig Weaver: From Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, a leader in emergency response training, Response Leadership, a podcast bringing you leadership expertise from the top minds in emergency response. Dr. Reginald Freeman is the Chief Risk Officer with the HAI group in Chester, Connecticut. Previously he has served as Chief of the Oakland Fire Department, Chief of the Hartford Fire Department and Fire Chief of the Defense Corporation, Lockheed Martin. In addition to a bachelor’s degree in leadership, he has a master’s in Executive Fire Service Leadership and a Ph.D. in Emergency and Protective Services.      

Dr. Reginald Freeman: Thank you so much. And again, my name Is Dr. Reginald Dion Freeman. And I am so excited to talk to you about something I’m very passionate about, which is servant leadership. Now, going back to my undergrad studies, I have a Bachelor of Arts in leadership, and I earned that degree in 2007. And one thing that really stood out to me throughout my studies was how impactful servant leadership seemed to be through the empirical articles that I researched and the papers that I wrote. And so, as I started peeling back the layers of the onion and looking at servant leadership, I discovered that it was a Christian faith-based leadership philosophy that was established by Robert K. Greenleaf in an essay that he wrote in 1970.  

So servant leadership simply, in essence, is you flipping the organizational chart upside down. It’s not that the person’s in the mailroom, the managers and the directors working for the CEO of the company. It’s actually the CEO that’s working for the directors, managers and everyone in the mailroom. You simply, again, just turn the organizational chart upside down. And for me, that is truly fascinating because the fire service that I joined in 2000, it was very autocratic. You did as you were told. You did not ask any questions. If you did, there were repercussions.  

Mostly in the tune of washing and waxing the rigs two or three times over within a five-hour period. And loading and reloading the LDH if you were to question officers or senior firefighters. However, with us having multiple generations in the workplace, servant leadership has proven to be very effective to ensure that we are as efficient as possible as an organization and as a team. And so, with that, looking at servant leadership, for me, it doesn’t take much effort as a student of leadership to really embrace the principles. Now, when you look at other styles of leadership – and there are literally hundreds of leadership styles out there, folks – you have to find something that works best for you. But the traditional lens of leadership is autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire styles. Now there’s a time and a place for every leadership style. 

So oftentimes, people ask me, well, Reggie, what’s your leadership style? And my response is always the same. It’s, well, pick one. My leadership style will be situational depending on the people that I’m dealing with and the circumstance. And if you are wondering if situational leadership was an actual one of the hundreds of leadership styles and philosophies out there, you hit the nail on the head. It absolutely is. And so with servant leadership, what we do is ensure that our members are being served and they have all the resources that they need to properly execute their duties and their responsibilities. And that comes in many different forms. It could be something as simple as calling one of your members because their significant other went into labor or one of their family members is sick. And you pick up the phone and say, Mary, I hear you and your family are going through difficult times right now. And as the chief of the department, I just wanted to call to check on you and see how you’re doing. And to let you know that your OFD of the family is here to support you 100%. Do not hesitate to tell me if I can do anything.  

That is a form of servant leadership. Another form of servant leadership is empowering those members of the team to be involved in the processes and to make decisions. So, something that I’ve said quite frequently, and I mean it to my core, is just because you can, does not mean that you should. Am I the 31st fire chief for the city of Oakland? Absolutely. I love every second of my job. And actually, it’s not a job. It’s somewhere that I go to co-mingle with people that I respect and admire, and I just happen to get paid for it. But it’s also my responsibility, as the chief of the department, to do much more than just asking questions and giving tasks. My job is ensuring that everyone knows and understands that this is our organization and not my organization. As the chief of the department, you get a sense of belonging. And we’ve all heard the terminology DEI, and quite recently, they’ve added the B, which stands for belonging. We have an opportunity to ensure that our members are not only effective but also efficient in everything that they do. And so, standing up committees, allowing folks to be part of processes, allowing them to be able to dictate what they use equipment-wise. 

For example, I’m on the third floor downtown in Oakland at headquarters. What do I care what set of extrication tools my members have on our heavy rescue and our trucks or even our engines when I’m not the one using it? My job is to find out what our members need and what our members want and to support them in procuring it. So, what we’ve done and what we’ve consistently done is we’ve stood up committees that are comprised of members of the team who actually use the equipment, and you have equipment that is utilized on a trial basis, there are notes taken, and then the committee selects the set of tools that they would like for me to procure as the chief. Now, can I dictate that they buy TNT or Hurst? Sure, I can dictate that. But should I? No, I’m not the one using the equipment. And so, if they want humoral, they get humoral. That’s simple. Another example is specs 40 apparatus. 

Now, for me, it’s as simple as the apparatus following NFPA 1901, and outside of a few bells and whistles, you know, I’m fairly open to what our apparatus looks like. Once again, I’m on the third floor downtown. What do I care what our members are utilizing if I’m not the one that’s on the piece, as long as it meets industry best practices and meets the standards? So that is another form of servant leadership is to allow your folks to have a say so in processes. And so, moving along, discussing servant leadership and its principles. You know, if you want a highly productive team that is high speed, low drag, give them their tools and their resources, and get out of the way. I don’t know what other way to say it other than being that simple. Give them what they need to be successful and get out of the way and let them be great. Oftentimes we try to dictate too much that happens within a firehouse as it pertains to senior officers without listening to those folks who are most impacted. And so, whether it is members in a firehouse, you are visiting with them on a regular basis, whether it is you recognizing their service anniversary dates, which has been very helpful for me in practicing proper servant leadership.  

I recall getting to Oakland last year, or excuse me, two years ago now, and my executive assistant showing me a stack of service certificates, achievements that we receive from City Hall, and they’re in five-year increments, so anywhere from five years up to 30 years. And so my EA said, well, Chief, do you want this delivered to the duty chiefs, to all the firehouses so they can be distributed to all the members? I said, no, I’ll do that myself. I’ll hand-deliver these certificates and let them know that they’re appreciated. And her response was, what? You’re going to deliver, you know, these roughly 120 certificates through all the firehouses? I said yes, absolutely. That is me wanting to show our members that they are valued, and they’re worth my time. They have served our great city for anywhere between five to 30 years. And the least I can do is to go to their firehouse, acknowledge them and recognize them in front of their peers, to present them with their certificate of achievement, to shake their hand and to tell them personally, on behalf of the Office of the Fire Chief, thank you for everything that you’ve done, and you continue to do. The feedback from that small act has been monumental. And that’s just one example of the little things that we can do to prove and show that we actually care. Is it going to make your day longer? Sure. Are you going to have to put some stuff aside that you were possibly working on that’s arguably less important? Absolutely. But it’s worth every second, and your members deserve it. 

 And so, looking at servant leadership, not only from an individual perspective but from an organizational standpoint, there are things that we can consistently do as senior officers, if not fire chiefs. And one of those things is to be a consistent advocate for your membership. Everyone within the organization has a role. And if everyone executes their duties and responsibilities, then we meet our mission. However, as it pertains to department needs, it is our job as a chief to explicitly state what those needs are. Not to be confrontational, not to be argumentative with our leadership or elected officials or appointed city managers or city administrators. But to simply advocate with objective facts as to what we need to execute our mission.  

Firefighters, they do their job. Lieutenants and captains, battalion chiefs, chief officers. They do their jobs. We have to do ours as fire chiefs. And if we’re not doing that, you need to start. And so as we look at green leaves model of servant leadership, I am always impressed with the focus on inclusiveness. But more importantly, the focus on empowerment and something that I’ve always held very near and dear to me is how we get firefighter buy in. Now, I remember first getting on the job and a senior firefighter said, hey, Reg, you know what cries more than a newborn baby. And I said No, What’s that? He said, A firefighter. And so, 22 years in the game, we have folks who have needs. But there our folks. And so, what we have to do is to ensure that they are taken care of. Now that analogy that Artie was referencing for all my firefighters out there, I think you can pick up what Artie was laying down. There’s something always discussed in a firehouse that we may not always agree on, which is okay. But we have to also remember that we have to disagree without being disagreeable. If you practice servant leadership, you can ensure that you have a culture that is established to where people feel open on airing their grievances and saying, I don’t agree without it turning into an unnecessary confrontation and a disagreeable conversation, and followed up with making sure that we do everything that we say that we’re going to do. 

That is so very important as it pertains to trust in the firehouse or trust within individual members on our team. And unfortunately, individuals sometimes struggle with this because there are elements out of their control, that happen. And so, you have some that have the attitude that I didn’t lie to you. The truth just changed. And you have some individuals that are just flat out dishonest. But if we approach every interaction with our membership from a standpoint of high morals and integrity, then we will not compromise that fragile fabric of trust. So, servant leadership is much more than just being there for your members and showing up. Servant leadership is the consistent application of empathy and that consistent application of making sure that you are delivering on everything that you have to deliver on as a senior member of the organization or any member of the organization, because you do not have to be in a position of authority to exercise leadership. 

Some of the most respected people in a firehouse don’t have any brass. They’re just salty firefighters. We rely on them for their knowledge, for their wisdom, for their experience and their expertise. And going home is everyone’s responsibility. But we also have to ensure that people feel comfortable enough to be able to speak up on things that are important. And everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a voice, and everyone should be heard. The only time that we should be autocratic is on the fire ground or during an emergency. With the exception is with that feedback having a direct impact on the health and safety of individuals on that Fireground or that emergency. Other than that, we should, and we should anticipate everyone executing their duties, responsibilities.  

But most of the issues that we have don’t happen on the fireground they happen in the firehouse, in the firefighters. If they won’t follow you in the firehouse kitchen during a regular conversation, they’re certainly not going to follow you on the fire ground. So, we have to ensure that the most critical individuals within the firehouse, which is our company officers, have all the tools that they need to take care of the most important person in the fire department, which is the firefighter. And I say the company officer is the most critical because they have legitimate authority extended to them by the office of the fire chief. I don’t care how many memos you push out or how many directives you issue, if that company officer does not understand that memo or that directive or the direction that department’s going, how can you expect the firefighter who actually does the work is going to be able to execute it? 

So, we have a duty to explain. Not a duty to debate. We have to ensure that everyone is clear on expectations, and everyone is clear on what is expected of them. And so, with Green Leaf’s model, although there are various forms of leadership that are out there when I think about servant leadership, and I think about what we do in the fire service and how we do it. To me, it’s a perfect combination. We are a service-based industry, whether it be emergency services or non-emergency services. And we have to embrace everything that comes along with taking care of internal and external stakeholders. So, there are distinct pillars that define servant leadership. And those pillars are character, courage, confidence, communication, culture, and competence. And last but not least, coaching. So that character piece is very important because character is something that cannot be taught, you either have character or you do not. However, we also have a duty to hold those around us accountable. But first, start by holding ourselves accountable. So, character is a very important element as it pertains to servant leadership. Courage. Now, courage not in the sense of what we do as firefighters being the brave, the bravest within our respective jurisdiction. 

Courage in regard to doing the right thing, having the courage to speak up and to speak out on improprieties and to speak up when things are occurring that should not be occurring. Next, confidence. There is a thin line, as we all know, between being arrogant and being confident. And so, for us as fire service members, having the confidence to do our jobs and to do our jobs well. But I again state that that is rooted in the relationships that we build. We are more suited to practice servant leadership. Fourth, communication. Communication cannot be talked about enough as it pertains to how important it relates to relationships. Both internal and external and communication has to be consistent. We have to ensure that we have the necessary conversations, regardless of how many times we have to have it without getting into a debate with anyone that we are interacting with. Now, culture, culture is an interesting perspective because when I think about culture, the first thing that comes to mind is values and beliefs. And so, values and beliefs drive our norms. And our norms are those things that we do day in and day out within our respective organization. And we have conflict within our organizations. When the values and beliefs of the individual are in conflict of the values and beliefs with the organization, and that’s something that we truly have to identify and truly have to understand.  

Next after culture is competence. As I’ve mentioned before in a previous discussion, someone who is competent to me has the appropriate training, education and experience, but more importantly applies that training, education and experience the right way. And so, someone with 30 years on the job alone does not necessarily make them competent. Someone with five years on the job who has a master’s degree and every certification underneath the sun also does not make them truly competent. 

You have to have a balance. And then, of course, last but not least, coaching, in our environment, we have coaching, and we also have mentoring. And so, the coaching element is critical to the success of our organization because everyone does not know everything. And for those items that we would consider long term objectives. Those individuals should be coached. For short term tasks, we mentor individuals to ensure that they are ready to execute and deliver on those items that they may not be so well versed on. So, looking at servant leadership and the pillars character, courage, confidence, communication, culture, competence and coaching are very imperative to someone who practices servant leadership to be highly effective.  

Now, when Robert Kay Greenleaf came up with this philosophy, I’m fairly certain he had in mind. What is it that I could ensure do to make people more efficient and more effective? What is it that I can introduce to make organizations more efficient and more effective? And again, when you look at servant leadership and compare it to the autocratic style of leadership or the democratic style of leadership or laissez-faire, the differences are very stark. You have to intentionally practice servant leadership in order to be impactful. And that impact, that impact sends waves throughout the entire organization. And so, for me, it’s been very helpful and beneficial as I am a student of leadership and, specifically a student of servant leadership. It allows me to not only be grounded but it has me remain focused on what’s important within our organization, and that is our people. Our people are the most important element of what we do and how we do it. If there were no firefighters, there would be no fire chief. And so, it is incumbent upon me to ensure that everyone is set up for success and has everything that they need. And servant leadership, practicing servant leadership, turning that organizational chart upside down helps me do that every single day.  

So, I hope that you now have an opportunity to look at servant leadership to find your specific style or ask more questions as it pertains to what you can implement to get your team to function at the level that not only you would like them to function at, but more importantly, how they would like to function. They’re going to need your communication. They’re going to need your guidance. They’re going to need your coaching. They’re going to need your mentoring in order for them to be successful. The only barriers that we have are those that we impose on ourselves. And so, ensuring that everyone, again, not only feels valued but also has a direct alignment of our organizational statements, particularly our mission, our vision and our values, is very critical to what we do and how we do it. It has been my honor to talk with you today, and I hope that you will find servant leadership as helpful to you as it has been to me. 

Craig Weaver: Thanks for listening to Response Leadership brought to you by Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. Follow us or visit Teex.org/podcast to listen.   

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