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Practical Leadership

There are as many different kinds of leadership styles in EMS as there are kinds of EMS agencies. Some of these are more effective than others and some are downright counterproductive. One could argue that, historically, there has been a lack of formal management education in this profession, which could be at the root of many leadership problems. But the issue of ineffective leadership is neither unique to EMS, nor necessarily absent in leaders who have that education. It’s a problem endemic to the position itself, whatever the organization or industry.

Mistakes that Guarantee Failure

There are a variety of factors that make one leader succeed at managing an effective organization and another fail. Many are practical in nature and not related to any particular aspect of management theory. Often changing a few simple approaches can make all the difference. The following is a list of common mistakes compiled by J.K. Van Fleet that managers make in their day-to-day functions:1

1. Failing to stay abreast of developments in the field and limiting yourself to your own specialty area.

Every leader is guilty to some extent of focusing on an area of particular interest, such as hazmat, mass casualty, clinical, human resources or another aspect of EMS operations. This bias can lead to limited function in relation to the department’s mission. While specialization can be a good thing, it must be utilized in service to your organization’s overall success.

2. Refusing to seek higher responsibility or to take responsibility for your own actions.

No one is perfect. Many managers think their employees should never see a mistake made. A common misconception is that employees will lose respect for you if they see you as less than perfect. This is simply not true. Everyone knows their supervisors are not perfect, and expects them to make mistakes. How you handle these mistakes is the key to your success or failure.

3. Failing to make sure that assignments are understood, supervised and accomplished.

Good communication is paramount to any organization’s success. Communicate often with those involved in a project to ensure that assignments are understood and completed subject to your initial expectations. Follow-up does not equal micromanagement when done appropriately.

4. Refusing to assess your own performance and abilities realistically.

In order to improve in any position, a good leader periodically steps back and assesses his own performance. An honest, critical assessment helps you identify your weaknesses and strengths, allowing you to improve by making continuous adjustments.

5. Using your position for personal gain, or failing to tell the truth.

There is no such thing as a little white lie. Failing to tell the truth tends to build upon itself. Dishonesty is the surest way to end a promising career.

6. Not setting a positive personal example for subordinates.

It’s easy to speak of rules of operation and conduct, but harder when managers don’t follow them in situations that are unfavorable to them. This sets a bad tone and a negative example that others will emulate.

7. Trying to be liked rather than respected.

No leader is going to be liked by everyone. However, even those who do not like you can respect hard decisions if made in the best interest of all parties involved.

8. Emphasizing rules rather than skill.

The employees know the rules. Good leaders realize this and empower their employees to develop critical thinking and decision-making skills within the context of those rules. This makes for a more efficient and productive employee in the end.

9. Failing to keep criticism constructive.

When it’s time to criticize, it’s also time to teach. Every mistake made is an opportunity for everyone involved to learn and make improvements. Positive criticism evokes a positive learning environment, turning the manager’s input into a tool for the employee to become more productive for the organization.

10. Not attending to employee gripes and complaints.

This is one sure way to breed contempt and ruin morale in a department. Not every complaint will be resolved to everyone’s liking, but employees need to feel that their leaders are trying. If and when an issue cannot realistically be solved to an employee’s satisfaction, let him know why. Good communication is essential. Subordinates respect the fact that someone is listening and making an attempt.

Character Flaws of Failed Leaders

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) conducted interviews with managers to identify individual factors that could be attributed to their failure after initial successes. They compiled this list:1

1. Defensiveness: trying to hide mistakes or fix blame on others, rather than taking responsibility and seeking to remedy errors.

2. Emotional instability: engaging in emotional outbursts or displaying moodiness, rather than projecting confidence and a calm demeanor.

3. Poor interpersonal skills: lacking sensitivity and tact, and being arrogant or abrasive.

4. Weak technical and cognitive skills: lacking technical know-how for upper-level jobs, possessing a narrow perspective based on a single specialty, or trying to micromanage the work of subordinates who possess substantial technical competence.

Flawed leadership in organizations is estimated to be in excess of 50 percent.1 This suggests that almost everyone employed has at one time or another worked with or for someone who has displayed some or all of the mistakes and flaws listed above. Ineffective leadership often leads directly to employee discontentment and an environment susceptible to failure. Good leaders realize that to be effective is to pay attention to all facets of their positions and to consistently work to improve their own performance as well as that of their employees.

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Reference Sources

1. Vecchio R. Organizational Behavior: Core Concepts. Mason, OH: Southern-Western. 2003, pp. 166–167.

This article originally appeared in the June 2005 issue of EMS Magazine.

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