How many of you feel lost in a sea of leadership advice? Every month a new article or book is published, and they all promise to reveal the secret to being a great leader or manager. “Just buy this book, take this course, or watch this webinar, and you will instantly emerge a capable leader, able to handle any crisis perfectly in record time!”
There are so many voices screaming that they have the answers, and if you listen to them all, you end up more confused than when you began. So, which voice do you trust to help you navigate difficult situations as a leader?
EMS leaders today are supposed to remain calm and detached but also show empathy and lead with passion. To stay focused on events at the tactical level but also have solid five-, 10-, and 15-year strategic plans readily at hand. To make every meeting and conference call but also stay sharp clinically. To delegate authority and empower staff but also have detailed knowledge of departmental happenings and serve as the ultimate content expert.
Above all they must be inspiring, communicative, and on message, whether wearing the uniform or not. In other words, leaders are always “on.”
Sounds exhausting, right? There really is only one person who can maintain proficiency at everything over the lifetime of a career: Superman. And if you are anything like me, you are not Superman. Most days I struggle to be Mickey Mouse.
It took me a long time to realize a significant source of my stress stemmed from trying to force myself into a different “perfect” leadership role or character in every situation. Global pandemic? You need to be the authoritative, all-knowing captain who can sail the ship through rough seas. Financial meltdown? Be the numbers whiz who can confidently reassure and turn everything around. Critical 9-1-1 call? Be the empathetic counselor who can help someone come to terms with what could be the worst event they have ever seen.
Leaving out the obvious fact that a leader might not have all these skills, you can get so far into your own head in these scenarios that the advice or direction people are craving comes out garbled.
You are not Baskin-Robbins. You will never be all 31 flavors.
The truth is, there is no one-size-fits-all leadership style. If you put 31 of your direct reports in a room, you will get 31 versions of what a leader is and should be.
Those of us who are leaders need to recognize this fact not only intellectually but also emotionally and psychologically. For a leader it’s more important to be genuine than to get every last thing 100% right. Self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie put it best when he said, “No matter what happens, always be yourself.”
So, how do you become authentic? The following three practices can set you firmly on the path to authenticity: self-knowledge, self-validation, and the understanding that failures are inevitable.
Acknowledge that you are unique, and your leadership style will naturally be the same: unique to you. Understanding your personal leadership style requires questioning the assumptions you carry about yourself and the world around you.
The next time you find yourself getting triggered by someone, ask yourself, Why did this interaction make me so angry? Are situations like this frequently triggering to me? If so, why is that?
On the face of it, these are simple questions, but they lead to self-knowledge, creative approaches the next time you find yourself confronted with this trigger, and a greater ability to deescalate any tension to reach an equitable resolution for both parties.
Looking deeper, asking “why” will help you uncover what your internal triggers are in stressful situations and work to disarm them. Every person has these emotional and physical triggers. The danger in not knowing your own is that others will learn what sets you off and use this knowledge to manipulate you at the expense of you and your organization.
Years ago I worked for a leader from whom you could get anything, provided you worded it in such a way that it sounded like their idea. Was this person an effective leader, or were they simply being led by every person who knew how to trigger their ego to get what they wanted? I would argue the latter, which is why self-knowledge is the first step in becoming not only an authentic leader but also an authentic person.
There’s no secret. There’s no shortcut. Personal growth can be painful beyond belief, but just as when we were all students learning cardiology or pharmacology, leaders have to ask the necessary tough questions to advance from being a student to a master of themselves.
Those in leadership, regardless of industry, have to find personal meaning in what they do. Those of us who work in EMS often have some level of meaning baked into the mission, but this doesn’t remove the need to know your reasons for putting on the uniform day after day.
Have you ever asked why you became a leader? Were you just bored with street-level care, or did you see a higher purpose in changing roles? What do you value most as a leader? Understanding your basic motivations and values is the first step in transitioning from being motivated primarily by external validation to being guided by your own internal compass.
Leaders driven by external validation ride a rollercoaster, with their priorities and direction chosen by everyone else. Their feelings of self-worth derive from reputation or praise only, both of which can fluctuate wildly based on opinion. If you don’t know your motivation, you are forced to live off the esteem others provide, which, like a fire driven by a purely external fuel, will burn out quickly once its source is removed.
Leaders with strong internal motivation are more focused and not nearly as influenced by capricious opinions or perceived challenges to their reputation. They are a self-generating, self-sustaining fire, and as such they are immune to burnout and able to focus on what is truly important.
So, how do you determine your motivations?
Go back to the question of what made you want to become a leader in the first place. The reason you originally entered EMS (to help people, to challenge yourself, to make a difference) or transitioned into a leadership role (to develop yourself, to serve a higher calling, to improve a workplace) can be considered your core motivation. If you don’t have a core motivation or your core motivation is for selfish reasons, some serious self-reflection is in order.
If you seek validation from those around you, you will never be satisfied in who you are, nor will you ever satisfy the requirements of what others want you to be. Learn to set your course by the stars, said Gen. Omar Bradley, not by the lights of every passing ship. Consider your core motivation the stars: Determine what that is and navigate from this central point.
Fail and Learn
A great way to learn leadership best practices and which techniques will be most effective for you is to read, watch, and interact with great leaders. Then reflect on why they excel at what they do and work to apply their techniques.
This differs from the confusing cacophony described earlier in that it isn’t a cookie-cutter approach, and trial and error are understood to be a necessary part of the process. By trying and failing you get a more objective idea of what your strengths and weaknesses actually are, not just what you think they might be.
As leaders we should regularly experiment with new ways of communicating and collaborating, because every situation is different. Working with an employee governance group requires different skills than commanding a multipatient incident. Both can be considered collaborative, but the former is more broadly inclusive, while the latter is driven by the experience level of one or two people. Using the same skill set in both situations would be inefficient and counterproductive.
Like the old adage, if all you have is a hammer, you’ll be seeing nails everywhere you look. Sooner or later, though, you’re going to take that hammer to a screw, and you won’t like the results. As coach John Wooden said, “Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be.”
Complicating the examples used above, a leader may need to switch gears and adapt to a new style quickly if circumstances change. The art of the pivot comes from using what you know about your strengths to discern the best response in the moment.
Again, the only way to learn what your strengths and weaknesses are is by doing the necessary work to find the outer edges of your comfort zone. If you’re a person who hates public speaking or being the center of attention, explore that boundary. Can you speak in front of five people? Ten? Find your limit, then challenge yourself to add to that number every few months. Or if you know you’re the type of person who dominates work conversations, let a subordinate run a meeting for a change, and be silent until everyone else has shared their thoughts.
Find what makes you stretch your abilities, and if you feel uncomfortable while doing it, good. That means you’re improving, and you shouldn’t be disheartened. Helen Keller, who pushed her boundaries throughout her entire life, believed that “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
Without a doubt, cultivating an authentic leadership style will keep you quietly confident despite all the external chaos and stress EMS can throw your way. The question is, will you do the work to get there?
Sidebar: Authentic Leadership in Practice
For leaders, self-knowledge, self-validation, and a willingness to experiment are all inextricably interlinked. Each of these practices forms the basis of an authentic leadership style.
That you are a unique leader bringing equally unique skills and experiences to your workplace. Take the time to reflect on what those are. Expanding your self-knowledge will not only allow you to refine yourself as a leader, it will give you a better understanding of the patterns you might be bringing into stressful or triggering situations.
That your values and motivations can serve to reignite your passion for the job on a daily basis. Don’t fall into the trap of letting what others think you should value drive you and your decisions. Reliance on external validation is the shortest path a person can travel to burnout.
That every peer leader has something to teach, even if it’s an understanding of the wrong way to do things. Watch, learn, and find the outer limits of what you’re capable of. Don’t let a comfort with one leadership style lead you to use that in every situation.
Jake Waller, NRP, has been in public safety since 2006 and has served as an EMT, paramedic, and EMS supervisor. He coordinates operations for a suburban EMS service in the Midwest. Connect with him on Twitter at @jakeification.