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Building Awareness as Leaders: 4 Mistakes to Avoid

For more leadership training, watch our free webinar “Building Successful Leadership in Fire and EMS” or explore our online EMS and fire leadership courses.

The first servant leadership attribute we reviewed was active listening. It is the foundation of all servant leadership attributes. If you are not able to actively listen to your team members, you will not be able to function as a servant leader. You will not be able to fulfill the other requirements;  you will not meet the other attributes that your team needs to succeed. 

Remember how Robert Greenleaf defined servant leadership:

“Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived?”

Another critical attribute to help your constituents and you as a leader “become healthier, wiser, freer, and more autonomous” is awareness. 

Awareness takes on many forms in the context of servant leadership. These are all centered around self-awareness and situational awareness regarding the culture and mood of the organization.  Where can this be tricky? While it is easy for us to believe that we are aware, deep in our belief system or cultural framework there are assumptions we do not even realize. 

  • Are you aware of the physical, social, and political environments within your organization? 
  • Are you actively managing the culture within your organization?
  • Do your associates feel physically and socially safe within your organization? 
  • Are you aware of the interpersonal politics within the organization?
  • Do you know who the informal leaders are? Do you know the individuals who have perceived power within your organization? 
  • Are you aware of the toxic individuals within your organization, and are there policies in place to deal with those toxic individuals? 

1. Don’t wait to build awareness in your department.

Building awareness in your department starts on a team member’s first day. New hire orientation programs (NEOP) should address cultural and social issues within the organization. Setting the expectation for behavior as a part of the NEOP will improve associate engagement. Set the expectation of behavior and excellence from day one. 

Awareness is not something you can build in isolation. You need to understand how your constituents view the department culture and politics. Have systems in place where employees can share their feedback without fear of it impacting their job. Set up suggestion boxes, send frequent surveys, and set aside time to meet with employees privately if they come to you with a concern.

2. Don’t put off addressing toxic associates.

Are you aware of the toxic individuals within your organization? If you are not, your associates are! Your associates also see that you have tolerated these toxic individuals. Start now to encourage employees to report potential problems to you privately or anonymously. 

It is important that you address these individuals in private. If, after repeated intervention, the situation does not improve, these individuals will either leave your organization of their own accordbecause of the pressure you have appliedor you may have to terminate their employment.  Tolerating a toxic individual in your organization is a frequent leadership failure. As a servant leader, it is important to attempt to work with and correct these individuals’ behaviors. The unfortunate reality, however, is that toxic associates may prefer moving on to another organization rather than change.

Avoiding toxic employees starts during the hiring process. Take the time to contact a candidate’s former employers and ask the candidate targeted questions to ensure they are a good fit culturally.

3. Don’t ignore self-awareness.

Another frequent leadership failure is not developing sufficient self-awareness. It is more difficult to perceive how the frontline provider views you the further away you move from the frontline provider’s position. Do you know how your frontline providers perceive you? Are you a frontline leader, in the trenches with them every day? Or are you an administrator?

It is important to use your active listening skills to keep a close pulse on the perception your frontline workers have of you and your department. As an administrator, make sure you are part of the team. You need to be visible. Washing trucks or making your team a cup of coffee will go a long way into getting them to open up and feel comfortable reaching out if a problem arises.

4. Don’t overlook the importance of emotional intelligence.

What about your emotional intelligence? Of yourself? Of others? Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions as well as the emotions of others.  This is a separate area of study that is important to remain aware of. We are all human beings. We do not check our emotions at the door of the workplace nor should we be expected to. You can express your emotions in a professional manner. It is also important to understand how your emotions impact your decision-making. Do not be afraid to delay a decision about an associate if you are angry over the situation. Angry people do not make good decisions. Your associate may not appreciate waiting for your decision, but they will appreciate you making a reasoned decision.

Remember that each person has an intrinsic value greater than the value of that person’s position to the organization. View your constituents within the greater context of the situation and their intrinsic value. This will help maintain your awareness. 

For more leadership training, watch our free webinar “Building Successful Leadership in Fire and EMS” or explore our online EMS and fire leadership courses.


Greenleaf R. Servant Leadership. Paulist Press; 1977.

Mckeage RL, Giambatista RC, Brees JR. “Cultures of Servant Leadership and Their Impact.” The Journal of Values-Based Leadership. 2020: 13;1. https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/apps/doc/A611171416/AONE?u=vic_liberty&sid=AONE&xid=ec154454.

Song J. “Leading through awareness and healing: A servant-leadership model.” The International Journal of Servant-Leadership. 2020: 12; 1; 245-284. 

Scott Arthur headshotScott M. Arthur, MBA—Scott Arthur has worked in the EMS and fire industries for 20 years as a paramedic and later as a director and senior director of operations. He currently works as a CareerCert instructor and as a business consultant helping organizations improve their safety and team leadership skills. Scott has a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. As an educator, Scott has presented at EMS conferences across the nation and enjoys connecting with first responders to improve department outcomes.


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