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Leadership/Management

Five Questions With: Jonathan Politis on EMS Leadership

Jonathan Politis is the retired chief of the Town of Colonie (N.Y.) Emergency Medical Services Department—that ALS/BLS agency, which he founded in 1989, is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary. Now in retirement, he runs an EMS leadership consulting company. In the latest Five Questions With, Politis shares some insights into what makes great EMS leaders and supervisors.

EMS World: You’ve been an EMS leader for several decades. Do you think being a successful leader is something that can be taught, or is it more learned on the job?

Politis: I think everyone can develop and improve on their ability to lead. Having rank doesn’t make you a leader. Being a person of high integrity and character does. While we may think leadership is all about technical details, the job is really all about working with human emotions.

Effective leaders need to lead with integrity and walk their talk. To be leader you need to have people who are willing to follow you. That means treating people fairly and with respect. We also expect leaders to know their jobs well and be willing to share the risk. That means leading by example and not asking people to do things you wouldn’t do yourself. They need to trust you—that’s where integrity comes in. It means doing the right thing even when nobody is watching. Having integrity also means taking responsibility when things go wrong. Ultimately, when people fail it’s because the leader didn’t prepare them, give them the right coaching or tools to succeed. Nothing kills morale and undermines leadership faster than a leader who blames their staff when things go wrong.

Along the way I’ve had some great role models and mentors who have helped me develop. It’s also wise to find good role models and mentor and learn from them.

Often EMS supervisors and leaders are promoted from within the ranks. Do you have any suggestions for folks who are now in charge of their former partners and friends?

People who are true friends won’t ever want to put you in the position of having to be “the boss.” However, some people will want to test your limits. Bosses expect people to do their jobs, and staff expects the boss to do theirs as well! Good supervisors set clear expectations and help their staff succeed. I’ve seen many cases of supervisors creating morale problems by playing favorites and allowing some to break rules while other follow them. It fosters apathy and poor performance with the whole team.

I think that as a supervisor 90% of our issues go away with being attentive to five basic things we need to have our folks do:

  1. Show up early for your shift and ready for duty when you get there.
  2. Wear your uniform with pride—you represent more than yourself.
  3. Check and stock your vehicle before the shift and don’t leave it a mess after the shift.
  4. Get station tasks done, learn something new every shift, and answer your calls promptly.
  5. Be nice to people!

When you were chief of the Colonie EMS Department, you and your department had a national reputation for being on the cutting edge of EMS. Do have suggestions for leaders who want to have their services be as innovative as possible?

The hockey great Wayne Gretzky was asked why he was such a good player, and he said, “I don’t skate to where the puck was; I skate to where it will be.” Leaders with vision are always looking toward the future and anticipating where our people and organization need to be. I’ve always loved staying up with the latest research, attending conferences, and learning as much as I could to make things better. Then all of that has to be tempered by what is technically possible, administratively feasible, and politically acceptable.

To stay in front, you need to operationalize what is known to be good for patients. At the same time I think good leaders need to control the reaction to change in their department. Even when it’s a good change, it shakes people up and can create stress for them. Earl Evans, the former director of the regional emergency medical organization in Albany County, used to say, “When building a penthouse, take care of the foundation.” What I think he meant by that was make sure your basics are strong before you develop the other stuff.

Today one of the biggest issues we face is manpower development. To plan for the future, we need to get people interested in emergency services while they are young. It used to be that some lower-volume volunteer agencies were the triple-A “farm team” and could furnish a solid pipeline of good EMS practitioners into a career, and that is not so anymore. We will need to put much more effort into Explorer posts, student internships, and apprenticeships.

Communication problems often plague EMS leaders. Do you have any suggestions on ways to more effectively communicate?

Millennials make up most EMS providers these days, I think around 70%. My experience has been that they are willing to move fast and do it differently than the past. For example, when I’ve seen them at conferences, their phones are out for fact checking, recording, posting, and multitasking. This tells me we need to communicate in a way folks understand. We need to embrace the power of YouTube, Google searching, and nonlinear learning rather than bemoan that wasn’t the way it was done back in the day. Instead use challenging communication and learning situations to teach others what you know in a way they learn.

In your retirement you run your own EMS leadership consulting company, are a volunteer fire chief, work as a per-diem paramedic in New York, and work as a paramedic ranger in the Grand Tetons during the summer. Can you share some lessons you’ve learned as a result of your work in these “retirement” years?

All these things are things I enjoy doing. I pursue my passions and things I’m interested in and that give me satisfaction. Lessons I’ve learned include:

  • Making good connections and getting good teachers pays off in later years.
  • Don’t do anything that doesn’t bring you satisfaction. If it doesn’t, change the activity.
  • Keep yourself in shape. I’m able to do lots of the things I do because I kept myself physically fit and ate right.
  • Get as much experience and exposure to new things as you can.

I will say that in retirement, your whole attitude changes when you know you can stop at any time. Keep doing the things that bring you joy!

Barry A. Bachenheimer, EdD, FF/EMT, is a frequent contributor to EMS World. He is a career educator and university professor. Active in EMS since 1986, he is currently a firefighter with the Roseland (N.J.) Fire Department and an EMT with the South Orange (N.J.) Rescue Squad. He is also an instructor at the National Center for Homeland Security and Preparedness in New York. Reach him at bbachenheimer@albany.edu.

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