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Prioritizing Self-Care as a Fire or EMS Leader

In earlier articles and webinars, we have emphasized the concept that servant leadership is not thinking less of yourself—it’s thinking of yourself, less.  It is putting your constituents first in every action and decision.  This powerful leadership method isn’t a gimmick or just another book. It’s a fundamental shift in the leader’s attitude and position in relation to the individuals placed in their care.

Stewardship is an important part of servant leadership.  Stewardship is defined as the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.  Commitment to the growth of people is also another attribute of servant leaders and servant-leadership-driven organizations.

What we have not yet addressed is you—the leader. Who is ensuring you are receiving what you need? Who is committed to your growth and development? Quis servus serve meus? 

Dr. Steven Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, referred to this concept as “sharpening the saw.”  Dr. Covey stated this was the “habit that surrounded all the others’ as it provided rejuvenation for the leader.”  Unfortunately, most people who are instinctively servant leaders are terrible at “sharpening the saw.”  These individuals see any deviation from serving others as a distraction, even if it is detrimental to themselves.  

There are 4 areas that Dr. Covey described as “sharpening the saw”:


This is likely where leaders in emergency services fail most frequently.  Rest, exercise, proper nutrition, and stress management are key to taking care of your physical needs.  You cannot expect to give your best to others if you have worn down your physical self.  Most leaders are unbelievably bad at this and need outside help to improve.  This doesn’t require a lot of your time. You can sacrifice a little sleep for this! I start my day at the gym at 5 am. An hour of cardio brings clarity. I’m much better at exercising regularly than proper nutrition, but that is also an important area of concern. A little planning of your time—at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise 3 times per week along with some better nutrition choices will have long-term payoffs.


This one can be a challenge. The other areas are simpler to define. There is not an exercise period for the emotional dimension of your health. There is no formula. This takes place in our daily interactions with others. This is determined by how we relate to others in conflict and harmony, at work and at home, in times of ease and times of crisis.  As we improve our emotional intelligence, practice the habits of seeking first to understand then to be understood—these will help us renew our social/emotional dimension.  We will receive refreshment as we develop our ability to interact with others in healthy ways.


Develop your mind.  Read! Read articles, books—things that uplift, educate, and inform. Fiction novels are a nice distraction and much better for your mind than television and movies. Television and movies can be relaxing, particularly when enjoyed with others, but they make a poor master. Don’t allow these things to dominate your leisure time to the exclusion of growth activities. Continuing education is important. It can take the form of self-help books, formal classes, trade education, or even education about a new hobby or sport. Keep your brain engaged and it will serve you well!


This is deeply personal. Whatever activity brings you internal peace, whatever helps you clarify and commit to your value system, whatever renews you, seek it out.  Spiritual renewal takes time.  Whatever you choose to define and commit your life toward, having clarity and focus will renew you. Some people use prayer, some use meditation, some music.  A personal mission statement of what you believe and who you want to become can help provide focus and guidance. It will allow you to clarify your center and purpose and recommit to it as needed.

Leadership is a sacred trust. We are entrusted to provide an environment where both organizations and individuals will achieve their goals. Servant leaders do this with a mindful consideration of the individuals involved and how these objectives are achieved.  You cannot fill another’s bucket if your own bucket is empty.  Invest the time in yourself that you would invest in your constituents so everyone in your organization can find balance and success. 


  • Covey S. The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2004.
  • Giambatista R, McKeage R, Brees J. Cultures of Servant Leadership and Their Impact. Journal of Values-Based Leadership. 2020. doi:10.22543/0733.131.1306
  • Greenleaf R. Servant Leadership. New York; Paulist Press; 1977.
  • van Dierendonck D. Servant Leadership: A Review and Synthesis. J Manage. 2010;37(4):1228-1261. doi:10.1177/0149206310380462

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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