5 leadership flaws that hold us back

It’s OK to have flaws – we all do – but we must be willing to work on them

We all have flaws – some we are aware of and others we may not yet be acquainted with. Whether we’re moving from the ambulance to the office or from one organization to another, change will bring us opportunities for growth.

The higher we climb, the more we uncover about ourselves. Mistakes will be made, our egos will get bruised, and our climb will reveal our leadership flaws. If we fail to identify and work on our flaws, they may hold us back.

Watch out for these five leadership flaws as you grow.

If leaders fail to identify and work on their flaws, they may hold them back.
If leaders fail to identify and work on their flaws, they may hold them back. (Photo/Getty Images)

1. Insensitivity/arrogance

Anyone can come off as kind in a conversation or simple exchange, however, a true sensitivity to people means showing up during times of adversity. True sensitivity means asking personnel, supervisors and managers what the problems are and then stepping in to address them.

Sensitivity means leading by example when things are rough. Volodymyr Zelensky is being revered as Ukraine’s most courageous president and leader after he decided not to flee Ukraine after being offered safety. Instead, he’s known for saying “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo.” There have been many publications showing Zelensky on the front lines with troops drinking coffee and preparing for war.

Understanding the daily work environment of the provider is a must. It’s important to know what it feels like to work as a provider in your own operation. Not understanding this is a serious disadvantage.

Insensitivity shows up in our industry in many covert and overt ways. Here are a few common examples:

  • Mandated overtime without communication or options
  • Extreme hold-over without communication or incentive
  • Ignoring real issues and deploying feel-good distractions (e.g., inauthentic recognition programs, silly social media campaigns)
  • Building a recruitment budget without an equal or more robust retention budget
  • Abandoning the mission and value statement of the organization
  • Allowing a disconnect between leadership actions and words

For EMS to evolve, we must disrupt the long-standing tradition of longevity promotions. We must start looking for people-centered leaders before we evaluate the time spent in the organization and skill set of the candidate. We need to be a little bit more Zelensky.

2. Failure to adapt and evolve

The great resignation and the pandemic have forever changed how we approach work. Those that are agile and in tune with what’s happening are evolving and adapting at a rapid pace. Today’s workforce values flexibility. Working from home and the ability to care for family needs is highly sought after. Employee wellbeing has also rose to the top when it comes to finding the right employer. Our industry has been slow to adapt in this arena. Many of us have not embraced hybrid leadership schedules and family friendly personnel schedules. We are hesitant for good reason – shortening ambulance shifts will contribute to our current staffing crisis, however if we don’t offer flexibility, will we attract talent?

Does the egg come before the chicken? Or the chicken before the egg?

According to Forbes, today, roughly 27% of the workforce is Generation Z. Gen is blazing a path in values-based work. Many in Gen Z express a lack of interest in working for a company that does not align with their values or moral standards. Further, they are known for behaving similarly when it comes to purchasing goods. Fifty-one percent of Gen Z would ensure a company was aligned with their own values before making a purchase. Fifty-four percent of Gen Z job seekers acknowledge that pay is their top priority. Ninety percent of Gen Z members surveyed expressed the value of human connection at work when it comes to communication [1].

Gallup research indicates, “The year 2020 brought employee wellbeing into the foreground. If the people in your organization aren't healthy – physically and emotionally – your organization isn't healthy either. But an organization's stance on employee wellbeing has long been a major factor in where people want to work and how they feel about their current employer – in fact, it was a top three issue for every generational cohort before COVID-19” [2].

It's important to compare the similarities and differences between what generations are looking for from an employer. We currently have multiple generations in the workforce and it’s important to consider this when we build an organization’s culture. We must adapt and evolve to attract generational talent.

3. A reactive disposition

One of the greatest leadership strengths is the willingness to take a step back to evaluate a situation before making a decision. It’s difficult to make thoughtful decisions in a reactive state. Stepping away, asking questions and gaining clarity will lead to better outcomes. The worst time to make a big decision is when you’re feeling fearful or angry. If you can, let things settle a bit before responding. This approach is similar to the golden rule about emails. If an email angers you, do not send the response for 24 hours. If it feels good to write it, don’t send it. Sit on it.

EMS operations are often filled with fires and middle managers well equipped with fire extinguishers. Proactive businesses have less fires and rarely use fire extinguishers. A reactive leader can create an unpredictable chaotic work environment. When people feel jostled and unstable, it creates fear.

During the pandemic, call volume fell quickly for some ambulance services. People were afraid to go to places and chose to stay home. Many left health issues unaddressed. A reactive approach to the sharp drop in transport revenue caused some of our EMS leaders to start layoffs almost immediately. Personnel became fearful and the competitor down the street leveraged this to their advantage and began hiring, even though call volume was at an all time low. The difference in approach between the services was a reactive vs. proactive approach. The proactive leader knew the lull in call volume would not last and they were right. The proactive leader was better prepared for the call volume spike that soon followed, overwhelming many of the services.

4. Short-term thinking and a lack of vision

When a leader lacks vision, they often lack direction as well. Decisions made in the moment don’t consider the big picture. This can have a negative impact on an organization’s health. The ability to consider both long-term and short-term effects of decisions is imperative to create the future of an organization. Long-term decision making often involves delayed gratification. Short-term thinking can feel good in the moment. Its often a shorter path and provides an instant result. It takes a certain disposition to consider the greater good of a longer, often riskier path.

Having the courage to think long-term is a rare trait and is often criticized in the corporate world. Steve Jobs was a visionary and as a result faced much adversity during his career. Those who can see the big picture have a clear direction and tend to approach issues on a much deeper level, seeking long-term results.

5. Settling into comfort

A leader that enjoys the destination more than the journey isn’t seeking lifelong learning. When we stop learning, we can become comfortable and get complacent. What does getting a little too comfortable look like in EMS leadership?

  • Spending too much time in the office, avoiding the crew lounge and station visits, not being seen.
  • Avoidance of or an unwillingness to have difficult conversations
  • A fear of change and desire for the status quo
  • Not responding to emails, especially from those below you in the chain of command
  • An unwillingness to take risks
  • Not attending conferences or professional development events
  • Spending time in the same circle of people
  • Rigidity about how things get done
  • Being bothered by a deviation from routine
  • Not seeking advice or input from others
  • Seeing others as competition instead of team members

If you’re the smartest person the in the room, you’re in the wrong room. It serves us all well when we get a little uncomfortable from time to time. This is how we grow and continue to learn.

It’s OK to have flaws. We all have them. We must be willing to work on them. It’s part of the leadership journey.

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This article was originally posted April 18, 2022. It has been updated.

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