How to define leadership in EMS

The term leadership gets thrown around a lot these days, but what does it really mean in the EMS industry?

Editor’s Note:

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 edition of Best Practices In Emergency Services as "Some Clarity About Leadership Development." 

Last month I wrote about a smart and talented young EMS supervisor named Jason who has little interest in leadership. He sees little he wants to emulate in the bosses running his agency and the so-called leaders at the forefront of the industry. I concluded that we need to do a better job of guiding a new generation of young people into leadership. Getting clear about what leadership is — and is not —and reflecting on our own leadership may illuminate some needed changes. 

The term leadership gets thrown around a lot these days. From NEMSMA to NAEMT, IAFC,  NASEMSO and the AAA, there is much talk about the need for leadership development in EMS. But here is where the confusion starts: If you listen closely, there is wide variation in what’s being talked about.

8 questions to help define leadership

Some are talking about the knowledge and skills needed to manage an EMS operation such as budgeting, deployment strategies and human resource management. Some are talking about mastering a set of officer competencies. Others are talking about creating a ladder where field providers can move from the field to supervision to management and so on. But there is little clarity about what leadership is — and, consequently, little clarity about how to develop leadership in others. 

To stir the pot around this topic, consider the following questions:

  • Does calling someone a leader make them a leader?
  • Can someone manage an EMS agency without providing leadership?
  • Does the title of director, administrator, manager, supervisor, executive or chief guarantee leadership?
  • Are most EMS agencies truly led or simply managed?
  • Is your state EMS director providing leadership of EMS in your state?
  • Are the people tasked with leading EMS in the federal government exercising leadership?
  • Is the head of your association actually leading the members somewhere?
  • Is that charismatic speaker at the national conference a model of leadership? 

Many are called leaders, but there is often a wide gap between the title and the actual practice of leadership. 

Leadership at its core

The need for leadership shows up when there is a need for a group of people to collectively move toward a goal or destination. The acute need for leadership is often most visible in crisis.

But the need for leadership shows up daily when something impacting a group needs group action to change, be different, be improved, be created or be stopped. Leadership then is a process of identifying a goal or destination coupled with a process of influencing others to action toward the achievement of the goal or destination. At its most basic level, leadership is about seeing ahead; it’s also about social influence. 

Most of us would agree that EMS would benefit from having more people who actually see ahead, describe a compelling vision of the future and inspire others to put their best efforts toward achieving that vision.

We especially need leadership that is not self-serving and has more than a personal career at its center. We need leadership that serves the basic missions of the organizations and groups being led and leadership that is benevolent and fully engaging to followers. 

The development of leadership requires learning, but it also requires modeling and mentoring — which means those of us who would develop leaders need to reflect on how we personally show up as leaders. 

So I end this with some personal questions. If a young EMS millennial came to you wanting to learn more about leadership, could you adequately define leadership for him or her? Could you help them clearly distinguish leadership from management? Is your own practice of leadership a model worthy of followership? If you were to mentor someone in leadership, could you point to your own successes in influencing others toward a destination? 

In answering these questions we will discover how we might better lead a new generation into a positive and compelling view of leadership. 

About the author

John Becknell, PhD, is a partner in the consulting firm SafeTech Solutions, LLP. John works with individuals, organizations and communities in leadership development, organizational assessment, strategic planning and employee engagement. John has been involved in emergency services and healthcare for 35 years and co-directs the EMS Leadership Academy. John is the founding publisher of Best Practices in Emergency Services and the former editor-in-chief of The Journal of Emergency Medical Services (JEMS). Contact John at

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