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4 questions managers should ask themselves to become better EMS leaders

Managers are not change agents, and the absence of leadership shows up when something needs to change, improve or be created

The single most powerful move any director, chief or administrator will make is the one toward becoming more leader than manager.

Leadership is the ability to influence people toward a destination, and management is the ability to effectively get things done. We need both. However, the crippling weakness in our industry and local organizations is that we don’t have enough leadership.

We’re great at managing; it’s our prevailing paradigm. We react and get things done — often with scarce resources. We’re great at managing responses, managing patients, managing deployment and managing budgets.

But managers are not change agents.

The absence of leadership shows up when something needs to change, improve or be created. We see this at the industry level in our chronic inability to make fundamental change in how we work together in attracting attention and resources. This lack of leadership won’t change until we begin to develop some fundamental leadership capacities within ourselves and our local organizations.

I encourage would-be leaders to work with four simple questions when moving from management to leadership. These questions reflect the essence of basic leadership development. They can be used as a self-assessment tool and a planning tool and, if worked daily, will dramatically move you from management to better leadership.

1. What needs to change, improve, be created or be made different?

The need for leadership over management emerges when something needs to change. The first task of the would-be leader is to become clear about what needs leading.

Ask yourself the question, but don’t stop there.

The real leadership action is to ask your employees and customers the question. What do they say needs to change, improve, be created or be made different? This will fully reveal what needs leading. By the way, be willing to hear that you may be part of what needs to change.

2. Do I believe I can lead change?

This little question is at the heart of whether you will act or not act. Most of us are not natural born leaders. Many would-be leaders wrestle with a lack of confidence — and for good reason.

To be a change agent is filled with risk. What if no one follows? What if you fail? What if you take the organization in the wrong direction? We need to get more comfortable talking about the fear associated with leading.

It’s real and stops us from getting out in front and saying, “Hey, everybody, let’s make a change.” If you don’t believe you can lead change, you will hang back and wait for others to pave the way and then follow.

3. Is the destination clear and known?

To lead is to inspire people toward a destination. If you are leading, is it clear where you are going this year?

I like to hear a leader clearly articulate his or her current destination in a language people can understand with statements such as, “We’re moving from our current low-morale culture to one where employees are wildly happy to be here,” or “I’m leading this organization from being chronically underfunded to one that has everything it needs and pays people well.”

Stephen Covey called this “beginning with the end in mind.” But the real test of destination clarity is when employees are the ones who can articulate the destination. If I sat down with your employees today, would they be clear about where you are leading them?

4. Have I organized my resources to reach the destination?

This is about how you spend your time, energy and capital. If I followed you around all day, would I see the destination reflected in what you did first this morning? Does it top your staff meeting agendas? Does it dominate the stories you tell staff and board members? Is it reflected in your calendar and daily schedule?

Leadership is not some mysterious ability learned from trying to emulate Abe Lincoln. It is a daily commitment that can be developed by working some basic principles. Start asking these questions every day and watch what happens.

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

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