Leadership in EMS is not simply about the select few whose collars are branded with brass-colored pins. Let's face it - the problems in front of our industry are complex as we try to recalibrate after a two-year global health threat changed the world as we knew it. As we continue to craft solutions that set us up for long term success, it will take more than an army of one to lead us out of this unprecedented time. Whether it's creating global forward-thinking strategies for the future or implementing a small policy change at a local EMS agency -- it doesn't matter. The leadership and decision-making process each scenario requires should be a collaborative effort. We are better together! We are more resilient together! Leadership takes ALL of us. You see, great leadership is less about a hierarchy and should be centered more around a network of people with varying degrees of talent...and many times a differing set of ideas/opinions. Now, I realize that some situations may require an autocratic leadership approach and that's OK! For instance, when an unexpected scene safety issue presents itself and we must act quickly - we may not have time to hear from a larger, collaborative cohort. However, in short, I am just trying to reinforce that the Chief isn't the only leader in your building. Our rank structure historically has been built in an overall vertical (top-down) fashion...but many times, the problems we face are more complex than that.
Transitioning now, take a step back and look at your own organization. Pay special attention to the staff that have been on the job for < 2 years. Do they have a voice? How consistently engaged are they? When we talk about leadership, it's important to not forget about the value your rank and file can provide both you and the larger organization. Remember, you hired them for a reason. They have influence, potential and perspective -- this "value add" exist even if they don't carry a formal title. After all, titles and leadership really don't mean anything. You can even apply this to the veterans who have been on the job > 15-20 years. Keep them engaged too. Don't let them "check-out" early. I'd even consider consistent and regular interactions between the groups. This symbiosis helps feed a strong and sustainable culture and both parties can benefit immensely from the association with each other.
Separately, and of no surprise to you, is that most choices in our business come with a risk/benefit profile. Most decisions we make come at a cost. The same can be said of leadership (great, fair, or poor). I want to bask in the costs associated with poor leadership for a moment. Toxic leadership can infiltrate a department in the blink of an eye, and maybe you've experienced this firsthand. This causes a disengaged workforce, and many times a revolving door of new hires directly associated with poor retention...think about what that does to the financials of any company. We spend 1/3 of our lives at work...maybe more, and therefore we should never tolerate being OK with or normalizing poor work environments. Some will tolerate poor conditions for an entire career, but I'd venture to say this is no longer the norm.
It's often said that people don't leave jobs, but instead they leave poor leaders. How many bright, talented and young professionals have left our industry because they simply ran out of the will or the resources to "stay in the game"? I'm not saying bad leadership should shoulder 100% of the burden here, but I believe it could be partially responsible for a percentage of the exodus... maybe it's the long hours, or the poor wages, or an individual has decided to devote their time to work completely outside of Fire/EMS. Whatever the reason(s), great leadership will absolutely play a part in seeing that we have sustainable successes in the future. In the corporate world, they say the true culture of the company can be answered by assessing how exciting the employees feel on Sunday night about returning to work Monday morning. Continue to self-reflect -- How do you feel the night before your shift? Can you provide solutions to make things better? Are you contributing to the problem? If so, it's never too late to shift gears and make a positive personal change to become part of the solution.
In closing, as leaders of organizations, we can't lose sight of our mission... "the why behind our very existence". We must remain obsessed with where we are going - in essence [our vision]. In public service, we all represent something larger than ourselves. We must never be obsessed with stepping on others to get to the top. This approach kills culture, wastes resources, and doesn't contribute to the greater good of our industry. Be the leader you wish you had. Be vulnerable. Be flexible. Be courageous. Share everything. Trust one another. Mentor and grow other leaders along the way -- the world will be a better place because of your small contribution to it. Why? because... "Great leaders create an environment that empowers people to work at their natural best." - Simon Sinek
Our future is dependent on ALL of us leading the right way, while staying hyperfocused on the right things!!
February 20, 2023
Author: Joshua Ishmael, MBA, MLS(ASCP)CM, NRP
Pass with PASS, LLC.