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5 things great EMS supervisors do differently

Poor supervisors wait for people to fail to meet expectations and then they point out the failure


Great leaders come in all sizes, genders and personality types.

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If you’ve been in EMS for more than a few years, you’ve possibly been considered for a supervisory position. In some EMS organizations the opportunities for promotion can come surprisingly fast, especially if you are good at being an EMT or paramedic.

For some reason we believe that being good at the job is a strong predictor of success at the supervisory level. It isn’t true, but the belief is persistent.

If you are a standout or strong performer in the back of the ambulance, you’ve probably already been approached with the suggestion, “Have you ever thought of promoting to supervisor?”

EMS supervision is a tough job. The years I spent as an EMS supervisor were not my favorite years in EMS. They were often lonely and filled with conflict.

I didn’t like being the bearer of bad tidings, or being a sounding board for a seemingly endless stream of gripes and complaints about the operation. I wasn’t used to people questioning my credibility and worst of all, I missed transporting patients to the hospital.

What my years in the supervisor vehicle did give me was a profound respect for people who are good at leadership in general, and EMS leadership in particular. Supervisors are tasked with the continuous monitoring of the system, deployment and resource utilization, while also looking after their employees’ welfare and well-being.

It’s a tough job.

Some do it very well and some … not so well. Since I left my supervisor vehicle for new horizons, I’ve made some observations about what good EMS leaders do consistently well. There is no single model of leadership that always works.

Regardless of who they are, great EMS leaders tend to master these five traits.

1. Build up the weakest members of the team

On every EMS supervisor’s team, there will be several poor performers. Some individuals will be low performers because they are burned-out or disengaged.

Some will have knowledge deficits and some will need skills improvement. Some will lack experience. Some will have too many bad habits.

For many leaders, these individuals will be identified as the “problem children,” the proverbial thorns in the supervisor’s side. Many leaders will decide that the best course of action is to somehow weed these individuals out.

Great EMS leaders will labor to discover the proper way to build these people up. They will ask themselves, what kind of support does this individual need from me to become better at what he does?

Great EMS leaders make their charges better at what they do. They build people up.

2. Listen intently with a desire to understand

Just about any leadership book will mention the importance of listening. Stephen Covey called it seeking first to understand before being understood, and John Maxwell called it the law of connection.

It’s nearly impossible to find a well-known leadership tome that doesn’t espouse the importance of listening. But good leaders don’t just listen, they listen differently and people sense the difference.

When you are frustrated about something or attempting to convey an idea, have you noticed that you can tell the difference between a person who is listening with the intention of understanding and someone who listens long enough to begin formulation a response? When you are listened to by someone who genuinely is seeking to understand you, it feels different.

That’s the way good leaders listen. When they interrupt, it’s usually to check their understanding of your words. When they respond, it’s often with clarifying questions or a rephrasing of your ideas and feelings. Good leaders listen completely.

3. Keep private feedback private

Great supervisors have a way of saving their feedback for the appropriate time. They treat performance feedback as sacred ground. You’ll never hear a really good supervisor bad-mouth another individual in a public forum, or in a private conversation when the individual in question isn’t around.

When folks are recognizing and criticizing another member of the team, it’s tempting for someone in a leadership position to want to affirm that feedback. The temptation is a desire to let people know that you also recognize poor performers or disengaged members of the team. The desire is to send the message, “I know about this. I’m on top of things.”

Participating in negative observations only serves to undermine team trust in their leader. Once a leader has crossed the line and participated in employee bashing (constructive or not) they have sent the message that negative performance feedback is not sacred. Team members want to know that, if their turn comes to be the subject of the rumor mill, their supervisor isn’t going to participate in airing the dirty laundry.

4. Communicate challenging expectations

Subordinates don’t want to feel that making the right choices is a guessing game. They want leaders who are clear about their expectations. Most folks will work hard to meet even the most challenging of expectations. But they need to have those expectations communicated clearly.

Poor supervisors wait for people to fail to meet expectations and then they point out the failure — or they point it out to others. Great leaders communicate their expectations clearly and then motivate others to perform to a high standard. They do so daily, using the most powerful tool available.

5. Lead by example

Leadership by example is the most difficult aspect of leadership. It is difficult because it challenges those in leadership positions to maintain their own high standards every hour of every day. Once a leader falls short of the standard just once, it gives everyone permission to disregard the standard.

If a leader expects others to look professional, her uniform needs to be impeccable every day. If she expects subordinates to show up to work early, she needs to be even earlier.

If he demands a rig checkout be completed every shift, the supervisor unit needs to be perfectly stocked. If he expects fast turn out times, he needs to run when the tones go off.

Leadership by example touches every aspect of an EMS leader’s job. Great leaders embody the high standards that they demand. And for that reason, they are respected.

In all areas of human endeavor, there are those who lead well and those who lead poorly. EMS is no exception. We have our share of great leaders and poor leaders.

If you are aspiring to a leadership position or if you are currently in a leadership role in your organization, good leadership can be learned. It’s never too early to begin growing your influence and practicing your leadership skills.

What things do you feel are essential in an EMS leader? Leave us a comment and let us know.

This article, originally published March 3, 2014, has been updated.

Steve Whitehead, NREMT-P, is a firefighter/paramedic with the South Metro Fire Rescue Authority in Colorado. He is a primary instructor for South Metro’s EMT program and a lifelong student of emergency medicine. Steve is the host of the One for the Road video training series.