Leadership comes in many forms, but for those of us who make our living in the EMS or Fire Service domains, leadership takes on a different connotation than for those who work a 9 to 5 in an office. Our work deals with people. Period. Whether you are a rural EMS or Fire Service staffed exclusively by a volunteer force, or a municipal service with hundreds of employees, the common thread as leaders, is that we need to deal with people.
In many systems, large and small, there exists a hierarchical design where rank and position are prominently displayed on both the organizational chart and on shirt collars. I am not debating the need for organizational structure, in many ways this structure lends itself to functional operations in the field. Rather, I am challenging the thinking that rank and organizational position accurately represents the leaders within an organization.
More often than not, we hear stories of service under the thumb of a tyrannical or incompetent leader. Rarely do you hear how much someone enjoys serving with the leader currently occupying the big office. Why is that?
I believe that EMS and Fire Service leaders are not adequately prepared to occupy the big office. I am not referring to the tactical aspects of holding the position i.e. fire ground operations or EMS incident management, but I am specifically talking about how we are prepared (or underprepared) to deal with people. Very few leaders that I have encountered are students of the discipline they are currently practicing. I don’t mean that tactics of the service provided. I mean the discipline of leading people.
Leadership is a unique and distinct skill; separate from the tactical proficiency that are required as a firefighter or EMS provider, these skills must be acquired in parallel to the other requirements of your position.
I spent most of my career as an EMS provider. There was a period of time when I felt that I was a fairly competent paramedic. Confident in my assessment and treatment skills; well versed in my understanding of medicine and procedures, but these skills were acquired over years of clinical practice, hours and hours of education, and thousands of patient contacts. These skills are not easily obtained and are extremely perishable if not practiced routinely.
Leadership is exactly the same as clinical practice. It takes being introduced to the concept of leadership through experiential and formal learning. It takes working with a mentor (preceptor) to learn what right looks like. Hours and hours of education, reading, studying, and preparing develops your skills. Thousands of leadership opportunities hone those skills into something useful, and you must practice these learned skills for they too, are extremely perishable.
I would love to hear your thoughts on leadership in the Fire Service and EMS. Leave your comments below and let’s start a dialogue.
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