Pinnacle EMS Quick Take: EMS leaders challenged ‘to make tomorrow better than today’

John O'Leary, a survivor of 100 percent TBSA burn as a child, delivered an inspiring opening keynote to Pinnacle EMS conference attendees


PHOENIX — John O'Leary, the survivor of a gasoline explosion that burned 100 percent of his body and nearly killed him, gave an inspiring and humorous keynote presentation to the EMS leaders gathered at the 2018 Pinnacle conference.

Given a one percent chance to live, O'Leary fought extraordinary odds. After spending five months in the hospital, undergoing dozens of surgeries, losing all of his fingers to amputation and having to relearn to walk, write and feed himself, he learned many valuable lessons he now shares with groups of school children, athletes and business leaders.

John O'Leary is a survivor of a gasoline explosion that burned 100 percent of his body and nearly killed him as a child. (Photo courtesy of Greg Friese)
John O'Leary is a survivor of a gasoline explosion that burned 100 percent of his body and nearly killed him as a child. (Photo courtesy of Greg Friese)

The insights he gained through this experience and the heroes who stepped into his life, including St. Louis Cardinal broadcaster Jack Buck, helped him through the journey and changed his life. O’Leary’s presentation, “On Fire! Sparks to Ignite your Life and Leadership” reminded EMS leaders that one person, one action or one word can indeed make a difference.

Memorable quotes

O’Leary, a polished motivational and inspirational speaker, gave a presentation packed with inspiring and memorable quotes. Here are a few that stood out:

“Take inventory of your blessings and move forward to do work that matters.”

“The mindset we use to solve the problem will lead us to the solutions.”

“The challenges we face all have to do with perspective.”

“It’s almost never what we see that burns us.”

“Great leaders meet people where they are.”

Top takeaways on igniting leadership

Attending an EMS conference is an opportunity to learn specific techniques for operations optimization or methods to better recruit paramedics. Conference attendance is also an opportunity to be inspired and refreshed. O’Leary’s presentation lifted the spirits of attendees and encouraged them to be their best as leaders, caregivers, and citizens. Here are my top takeaways:

1. Questions to ask to be your best as a leader

O'Leary started his presentation by telling the story of his discharge from the burn center almost 32 years ago. He used his memory of that day and introduced to the audience the three questions leaders need to reframe how they ask and understand to be there best self. Those questions are:

  1. Why me?
  2. Who cares?
  3. What more can I do? 

If we ask these questions with a mindset of opportunity, taking account of our blessings and realizing our abundance, the answers will expose solutions to serve others and work on the challenges of leading.

O’Leary asked leaders to add the phrase “to make tomorrow better than today” to the final question. He challenged each of us to answer the question “What more can I do to make tomorrow better than today?” before leaving the presentation.

2. Understand the forces that motive us

O’Leary explained the forces that motivate us. The first force is fear. The second force is love which allows us to connect, create, innovate, encourage others and generate ideas.

Jack Buck, O’Leary’s parents and many others used the force of love to help O’Leary re-learn how to walk, write, play the piano, go back to school and succeed in life.

3. Elevate the expectations you have of yourself

When answering the question, “Why me?,” take inventory of all that you are doing right as a leader, all that is going well at your organization and appreciate all the ways the EMS has profession has improved during your career.

After he was released from the hospital, O’Leary’s mother resumed his piano lessons. Much to O’Leary’s childhood disappointment, he continued piano lessons for another five years. While O’Leary played “Amazing Grace” on the piano, he directed the audience, “think of one person who inspires you to become the best version of yourself.”

Learn more about leadership

The presentation closing featured O’Leary playing the Coldplay song “The Scientist” on the piano and reminding the leaders at Pinnacle of the song’s lyric, “Nobody said it was easy”.

Leadership is not easy, nor should it be. But all of us are able to learn and grow as leaders in our organizations, families and communities. Here’s how you can learn more about leadership.

O’Leary sends a weekly motivational email and hosts a podcast. Learn how to subscribe or listen on his website JohnOlearyInspires. He is also the author of the bestselling book, “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life.”

Attend the Pinnacle EMS conference, complete the Ambulance Service Manager course or Communication Center Manager course offered by Fitch & Associates.

Work towards attaining the three levels of EMS leadership and accompanying credentials from the National EMS Management Association. Those levels are the Supervising Paramedic Officer, the Managing Paramedic Officer and the Fellow of the College of Paramedic Executives.

Subscribe to the monthly Paramedic Chief eNewsletter from EMS1 in partnership with the National EMS Management Association.

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