If you want to be an effective EMS leader in your organization, you sometimes have to do some unpleasant things. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy or gal. Sometimes you have to tell your employee how it is regardless of what they will think of you after the conversation is over with.
I had a fire chief who I worked for in St. Louis once tell me that everyone wants to sit in my chair, wear my badge and get my salary, but some are unwilling to do the job. Sometimes doing the job means telling someone they are fired, demoted, suspended or not getting promoted. But these are not only the times you might have to deliver an unpleasant message to one of your employees.
Sometimes it may be as simple as telling one of your employees they didn’t fill out a drug order form correctly. Unfortunately, I have seen EMS managers unable to do even this simple task. Why is it that some people in a leadership role fail to deal with employee problems head-on?
There is the person who, instead of delivering bad news, blames it on someone else: “Hey, Bob, I think you do excellent patient care, but the doctor at the hospital is complaining and the EMS chief wants me to do something about you not starting an IV on some patients.” That does not make you look very professional and is shirking your responsibilities in your EMS management role.
Or there is the person who has to issue discipline to an employee, but attributes it to those higher up: “Sue, I need to talk to you. I’ve been ordered to give you this written reprimand for not keeping your ambulance clean. If it was up to me, I’d just have you clean it, but this is what the big boss wants.” Throwing the leadership of the EMS organization under the bus does not bode well for you as a member of the team. I have personally had to carry out unpleasant tasks with employees after being told to do so by one of my superiors, but I have never disparaged my bosses when I met with the employees.
Why Leaders Fail
One reason for failure is because people want to be liked and not seen as the bad guy or gal. However, as a leader, you have to be a boss and not a friend. Leaders have to provide constructive criticism to employees. Sometimes it needs to be in the form of feedback and other times you can make it a coachable moment. Another reason people fail is that they cannot handle conflict. The person who has to deliver the bad news does want to be challenged or questioned and it is easier for them to put the blame on someone else.
Steps to Leadership
So if you are this type of EMS leader, what can you do about it?
First, get some backbone. If a leadership role is not for you, you need to step back to a position where you do not manage or lead people. Just because you deliver bad news does not mean you are bad person or the enemy. Your job as an EMS leader is to help your employees grow. Giving them feedback on how they can do the job correctly either verbally or in the form of discipline is part of the maturing process for employees to become better. I am not a big fan of discipline, but it may be needed from time to time to help change the behavior of an employee.
If you’re trying to improve an employee either through a coachable moment or discipline that you must issue, you need to leave your superiors out of the conversation.
The other thing that can go wrong when you shirk your responsibility by avoiding the issue or blaming someone else is that eventually your superiors will hear about it. They will want to know why you are dodging the tough job and why you’re not demonstrating leadership by giving constructive feedback to an employee who is operating below the acceptable standards. They will certainly not have a high opinion of you when it comes time for your potential promotion. Your boss wants to know you are able to manage employees.
I have been in a position many times where I have had to separate employees from the organization or discipline an employee. It is nothing that I looked forward to and it was certainly nothing I relished. But I knew it was my responsibility, and I carried it out.
Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, is chief of the Champaign (IL) Fire Department. He is a well-known author and lecturer who has successfully managed large, award-winning metropolitan fire-based EMS systems in St. Louis and Memphis. He has a total of 37 years of fire, rescue and EMS experience and has been a paramedic for over 35 years.