Perhaps you find yourself recently promoted from EMS provider to supervisor or tour chief. Maybe you passed the test and moved from firefighter/EMT to lieutenant. It could be you were elected chief, captain, or director of operations. Regardless of the circumstances, you have gone from running a scene with a partner or small crew to running a shift, a company, a division, or an entire agency. Now your perspective needs to shift from self-leadership to organizational leadership.
There are many books in the public safety field that address this. (Two personal favorites are First In, Last Out by John Salka and Streetsense by Kate Dernocoeur.) But sometimes we do better when we look outside our field. Here are a few examples of leaders from beyond EMS who have some timeless advice for new leaders in any field!
On Always Being a Learner: Katherine Johnson
After earning bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French from West Virginia State College, Katherine Johnson went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics’ Langley Laboratory (NACA went on to become NASA). She did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 Freedom 7 mission. In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Johnson was called upon to do the work she would become most known for: cross-checking the computerized numbers through the same equations that had been programmed into the computer, but by hand, on her desktop mechanical calculating machine. Glenn’s flight was a success and marked a turning point in the competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union in space. Johnson was credited with much of the behind-the-scenes success, and her life was the focus of the major motion picture Hidden Figures in 2016. When asked to name her greatest contribution to space exploration, Johnson would talk about the calculations that helped sync Project Apollo’s lunar module with the lunar-orbiting command and service module.
Besides being an inspiration for both women and Black Americans, Johnson was known as a lifelong learner. “Like what you do,” she said, “and then you will do your best.”
Another famous Johnson quote is, “Take all the courses in your curriculum. Do the research. Ask questions. Find someone doing what you are interested in! Be curious!” Just because you are promoted or in an influential position, you cannot assume you are done with your education. On the contrary, much like Johnson, you must always strive to be curious. Maybe it is looking for the latest advances in emergency vehicle safety, reading research journals to learn about new medications or procedures, or simply looking at the best safety policies for your people during a pandemic. Regardless, set the model for your people to never stop learning.
On Setting the Tone: Theodore Roosevelt
Would you like to be known as a person who brought excitement and power to your position while helping make needed improvements? If so, the 26th president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, might be a good role model. Roosevelt saw himself as both a strong leader and a crusader, standing up strongly for what he felt was right.
Many remember Roosevelt’s words “Speak softly and carry a big stick” and think force was how he got things done. On the contrary, while that was his approach to foreign policy, he used personal relationships to champion causes he cared about. It wasn’t enough just to make speeches; he often said, “Knowing what’s right doesn’t mean much unless you do what’s right,” and felt that action spoke louder than words, as he modeled, “The only man who never makes mistakes is the man who never does anything.” Roosevelt also believed the way to do what’s right was reflected in the way he worked with people. He said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” He used this motto to make changes in child labor laws, establish national parks, and strike a balance between the needs of large corporations and organized labor.
As an EMS leader, the place to start is the way you treat your people. They may respect the rank, but if you want them to respect the person, you need to treat people right and do what’s right through caring about your people and thoughtful, yet decisive action.
On Effort and Teamwork: Derek Jeter
Rookie of the Year, 20 years of major league baseball with the Yankees, multiple all-star games and Golden Glove awards, and five World Series titles. One of the greatest shortstops to play baseball and a member of its Hall of Fame, Derek Jeter served as captain of the Yankees and was known as a champion but also for his quiet and responsible leadership.
Like EMS, Jeter knew baseball was a team sport and made sure a group of talented individuals acted as a team. He said, “Surround yourself with good people—people who are going to be honest with you and look out for your best interests.” To have people take care of you, Jeter knew you also had to take care of them: “I always have tried to treat people with respect, the way I want to be treated.” This means you are respectful of people’s time, show gratitude for extra effort, and take an interest in your colleagues’ lives.
Additionally, Jeter has practical advice for today’s world: Work hard. While he may have had natural talent, his success came from effort. “There may be people who have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.” If you gained your EMS leadership position from hard work, study, and effort, you will succeed in the position with that same effort.
Jeter also offered some practical advice that is timely for anyone: “Assume everything you do is public knowledge. Everything. Because now everyone is a reporter. Everyone is a photographer.” This means being transparent about your decisions and always acting in an upstanding manner, both on and off duty. Jeter rarely found himself in controversy or drama because he conducted himself well on and off the field. That same should be true for leaders both in and out of the station.
As a leader it is always a good idea to have mentors and role models to follow. While you hopefully have those in EMS and the fire service, looking to other fields can provide you with additional inspiration as well.
National Baseball Hall of Fame. Derek Jeter, https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/jeter-derek.
Shetterly ML. Katherine Johnson Biography. NASA, www.nasa.gov/content/katherine-johnson-biography.
The White House. Theodore Roosevelt, www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/theodore-roosevelt/.
Barry Bachenheimer, EdD, NREMT/FF, is a career educator and professor with nearly 35 years in EMS and the fire service. He is a frequent contributor to EMS World.