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How to help young EMS providers develop into leaders

Here’s how EMS organizations can better prepare and mentor those promoted into supervisory or management roles


There are many things (beyond the scope of this column) that go into choosing the right people for supervision, management and leadership positions, but at the core of choosing we need to ask, “Is this candidate someone who can truly inspire others to follow?”

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I recently spent an hour with a young EMS manager who was ready to quit. He had been in his current position only a few months, but the responsibilities and stress of trying to do a big job that was much more than just getting tasks done had left him feeling overwhelmed.

When I suggested he confess his frustration to his boss and ask for guidance and help, he shook his head. “That’s not how it works around here,” he said.

That’s not how it works around many organizations. While EMS organizations may understand the importance of developing new field providers through formal field training programs, many do very little formal preparation and mentoring of those promoted into supervisory or management roles.

Sure, the young EMS manager had been told about the duties and actions of the job. His boss had explained and shown him how to deal with details of the scheduling and operations that made up the job. The boss was willing and ready to answer questions and offer advice about the how and what of the position, but something was missing.

How do you take a field paramedic and turn him or her into a star supervisor, manager and leader?

This question gets to the heart of what we believe about leadership development. For many organizations, this is about finding or promoting the right people, giving them some on-the-job training and then letting them find their way to success through the school of hard knocks. We believe in the hard knocks process because it’s the way many of us became leaders — we just got in the position and found our way. But I’m convinced that this is not only not the path to creating a winning team, but it’s a path that keeps some of our best people from entering the ranks of management and leadership.

If we truly believe leaders can be developed, our approach should include three important ingredients:

  1. Choosing the right people.
  2. Providing them with formal education and training in leadership.
  3. Consciously and formally mentoring them for success.

There are many things (beyond the scope of this column) that go into choosing the right people for supervision, management and leadership positions, but at the core of choosing we need to ask, “Is this candidate someone who can truly inspire others to follow?” If we are willing to ask this question and think deeply about leadership, we will filter out a lot of candidates who may be great at tasks but poor at influencing others.

Formal and conscious mentoring

What I find most absent in the development of leaders is formal and conscious mentoring. The term mentor is thrown around a lot but without much understanding or clarity. When I speak of mentoring in leadership, I’m talking about a formal relationship between an experienced and seasoned leader — a mentor — and someone who can benefit from receiving guidance and counsel: the mentee.

The mentoring relationship is more than a critique and the dropping of advice. It’s a relationship that is first and foremost rooted in the mentor’s belief that the mentee can grow and develop. This belief is then demonstrated in the dedication of time and action. To formally mentor is a process of helping another grow through regular deep listening, asking poignant questions, and providing observations and feedback.

Done best, mentoring builds the confidence of the mentee and at the same time opens him or her to being a learner. Great mentors help mentees discover their strengths, take ownership and become accountable for realizing their goals.

Leadership development is a journey that takes years. Expecting people to assume a title, occupy an office and figure out how to lead is a crapshoot. Sometimes it works; often it doesn’t. This is an invitation to consider your process of leadership development and ensure that the potential leaders in your organization have the opportunities to become their best.

This article, originally published on Oct. 23, 2013, has been updated.

John Becknell, PhD, is a partner in the consulting firm SafeTech Solutions, LLP. John has been involved in emergency services for 40 years and writes and researches in the areas of leadership, culture, community and psychological wellbeing. He leads workshops, retreats and training programs for EMS, law enforcement and the fire service in living well, peer support and transforming the first responder experience into a path of growth, satisfaction and meaning. He is the author of Medic Life and numerous articles. John’s Masters and Doctoral degrees are in psychology with an emphasis on community psychology. Contact John at